This is something I wrote a long time back; it had me all excited then and it doesn’t feel any different today. History is fascinating and I think I would have loved to be an anthropologist in another life, I guess.
Although, I have no idea how it must have felt being a technical writer fifty years ago, the books and research papers give us some information about what it must have been like then. We all talk about audience types and persona, and how user documentation must be like this and like that. But it is not without the efforts of those gone before us – both writers and readers – that we do the things we do without giving it another thought.
History is indeed fascinating, at least of something that you like, and you surely don’t want to give George Bernard Shaw the satisfaction of saying . . .
We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.
— George Bernard Shaw
The 70s are definitely not the beginning of technical writing. However, we can say that technical writing for computer manuals took off along with the use of personal computers. Let us look at the problems technical writers faced then and what solutions they came up with.
Computer documentation in the early 70s was limited to documenting Management Information Systems and equipment used in the military and the research institutions. There was little research on audience preferences for computer documentation, and therefore, the writers relied heavily on the research related to the user documents in other industries. Pearsall’s paper (Pearsall 1970) on basic audience type defined a broad classification of different types of readers and their needs.
Pearsall later elaborated that the layman is more interested in the practical side of the system and the writers should keep theory limited only to describe the concepts that are essential to understand the application. Some of his concepts such as presenting new knowledge with an analogy to old knowledge and the pace of presentation of information are still important for technical writers.
Discussion in the early 70s was more on writing instructional manuals for the electronics and instrumentation industry and followed military standards. This was also the time when the writers started using computers to create documents. The discussion was ripe about the economics and advantages of using computers for documentation. Surprisingly, nobody was talking about writing for this new technology yet. Pearsall’s early call to know the types of audience was echoed by McGraw, who indicated the problems of technical writers who were weighed down by the need to please the management and not the readers of the document (McGraw 1975).
The earliest discussion on documentation of computer systems mushroomed around 1977. The discussion at this time was very preliminary; writers discussed about suitable page layout and the kind of information that they should include (Coultar 1977). This discussion was about system documentation and with a view toward a technical audience. As the systems were still primitive, the documentation concentrated on defining the input and the output of the system. Technical writing in this area was still young and documentation of a computer system meant different things to each organization. As a result, computer documentation lacked an overall consistency; some organizations prepared separate manuals for each audience, whereas others crammed all the information into one document.
The idea of the personal computer also took shape around this time. Altair started shipping assembly kits for personal computers working on BASIC to hobbyists and technology enthusiasts by advertising in the electronic journals. The documents shipped with the Altair kits included assembly instructions and a manual to install and use BASIC programs. Almost all the manuals in the 70s were printed on a typewriter, thereby limiting the use of display types and fonts or color.
This lack of technology meant that navigational elements used in the manuals were limited to the use of a table of contents at the beginning of the manual.
The hardware assembly manuals were somewhat better, where the writers presented the instructions in a sequence with illustrations and appropriate preparatory messages.
This might have been because the writers had created similar documents for other complex machines and electronic devices (Zachry 2001).
The software manuals during this time were limited to instruction on installation and use of BASIC. However, the organization and presentation of the content was inconsistent and seemed to follow the sequence the writer thought was important. This might have been because developers created most of the content during this time. As personal computers were still not available in assembled form, we can say that the writers expected the audience to have some technical knowledge or be motivated to learn something new.
However, the trend of developers creating the documentation continued even when personal computers became popular and easily available. Users could now buy assembled computers, the audience shifted from being technical or self-motivated users to users who were interested only in the application of computers. The users expected to understand the new technology as well as be able to use it with help of the provided documentation. However, most of the early learners relied on their peers to learn how to use computers as they found the available documentation unhelpful (Lee 1986).
The mid to late 70s were abuzz with application of the new technology and everyone was eager to put their hands on a personal computer. Toward the end of the 70s, as computers began to penetrate businesses and people started using them for business tasks, requirement of good documentation gained importance.
To summarize, following were some of the problems with documentation in this decade:
- the documentation was created by developers and lacked organization or consistency
- documentation often had the lowest priority and was time consuming (Kuch 1975)
- delivery of updated documentation posed a major challenge (Kuch 1976)
However, creating user-oriented documentation emerged as the most important challenge with widespread application of personal computers. It became evident that the writers must have technical knowledge as well as be able to position themselves in the user’s role to understand the user requirements (Hilda 1976).
To overcome the document delivery problems, Kuch suggested that writers include the schedule or a date when the writers would provide a documentation update. He further suggested that writers provide an update package with a change sheet each month or according to the established schedule.
Documentation of the computer system and the user manuals also lacked an established process. Glenn (Glenn 1975) suggested an algorithm for systems documentation where he described at what stage the user documentation should begin and how at every stage it should be updated to keep it accurate and current.
Kuch (Kuch 1975) identified that the users are more concerned if the available information is clear, up-to-date, and easy to find.
One of the key research outcomes to solve the information presentation and organization problem was development of the information mapping system. Information maps helped writers analyze the tasks and write technical material quickly. The system was used to identify the type of information required, categorize the information, and form relations between the information elements. The information mapping system intended to replace the prose with blocks of information and provided a modular classification (Horn 1975).
In retrospect, we can say that this was the foundation for modular text and the single sourcing concept later on.
Technical writers of the 70s were busy understanding the new technology and user needs. What information to include, how to present this information, and distribution of the information were some of the most important topics discussed and explored in this decade.
Pearsall, Thomas E. 1970. Writing for the layman. Paper read at International Technical Communication Conference, at Minneapollis, Minn.
McGraw, Larry. 1975. More Audience Participation Turned Our Technical Publication Into “Best Sellers”. Paper read at International Technical Communication Conference, at Anaheim, California.
Coultar, Sandra J. 1977. Preparing Computer User Guides for a Technical Audience. Paper read at The 24th International Technical Communication Conference, at Chicago, Illinois.
Zachry, M. 2001. Constructing Usable Documentation: A Study of Communicative Practices and the Early Uses of Mainframe Computing in Industry. Journal of Technical Writing and Communication 31 (1):61-76.
Lee, Denis M. S. 1986. Usage Pattern and Sources of Assistance for Personal Computer Users. MIS Quarterly 10 (4):313-325.
Kuch, T. D. C. 1975. Foundations of documentation. SIGDOC Asterisk J. Comput. Doc. 2 (7):12-12.
Kuch, T. D. C.. 1976. The documentation delivery problem. SIGDOC Asterisk J. Comput. Doc. 3 (5):15-15.
Hilda, Standley. 1976. Achieving user-oriented documentation. SIGDOC Asterisk J. Comput. Doc. 3 (6):4-4.
Glenn, Ransier. 1975. Documentation techniques. SIGDOC Asterisk J. Comput. Doc. 2 (7):7-7.
Horn, R. E. 1975. Information Mapping. Datamation 21 (1):85-88.