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Developing a Voice for Technical Documentation

More and more, companies are using technical writers to create content for a product using the product voice. “Voice” is a marketing tool that ensures all aspects of the product are easily identifiable – and technical documentation is a big part of creating a product’s voice.

If a product is already well-established, then writing in the product’s voice is easier because the voice is recognizable and defined. However, products that are new to market or emerging need their own voice. So, how do you go about creating a voice when you’re a technical writer?

The “voice” of a product is developed by several streams within the product team itself. Marketing will play a large role, but so too does product management, visual design, and technical documentation.

From a writer’s perspective, creating a voice for a product is more than updating style guidelines-although that is part of the process. We have to be creative, and assertive, about ensuring that the writing team collaborates with the rest of the product team. We’re at the crossroads of marketing’s vision, user design’s implementation, engineering’s execution, and field team’s experiences.

Gather Marketing and User Experience Teams Input

Firstly, we work with the marketing team to understand the key words for the product. How are they pitching it to customers? You want to make sure that you’re using those words in the customer help, the messages in the product itself, any error strings, and in the support. It’s less effective writing about “working together” if marketing is pitching the product as something you use to “collaborate now”. Beyond aligning terminology, you’ll also want to match tones: if the product is designed to be cutting edge and informal yet authoritative, then you can ensure the writing follows suit by using contractions, concise sentences, avoiding jargon, and structuring subject areas neatly.

We’ll also work with the visual design and user experience teams to ensure that the tone and voice they’re using on the product interface are consistent with marketing and documentation. Technical writers often play a key role in helping with consistency here. After all of the big decisions about a product have been made, and as engineers get pulled in one direction then another, the documentation team are ensuring that strings still match the product voice, often rewriting them or suggesting new approaches. It is usually our standardized texts, our newly developed guidelines, our “don’t use” lists, that become the practical authority on the product voice.

Having a Formal Review Process is Key

A key stage to developing a voice is having a robust review process. Peer reviews are useful to make sure the team is coming along together and talking about the product in the same way. It’s a useful process for picking up nice turns of phrase that you’ve seen someone else use, or to discuss points when there are differences in approach. After we’ve done an internal peer review, we may also bring in the marketing team and field teams to check in and make sure that we’re all still on the same page. This stage is iterative and requires constant vigilance: as the product evolves, so too will the nuances of its voice. Often the field team provides invaluable insight about who our customers are, what they need, what they’re frustrated by, and how our support can become even more targeted towards them.

Informality Doesn’t Always Work

It’s only after enough content is generated and it’s put together that we see things that work on a detailed level, but become glaring issues when seen from the big picture. Little injections of informality, like using exclamation marks may seem harmless enough, until you see the articles in context and all of a sudden what seemed innocent now looks patronizing. This is when you need to revisit the voice you’ve developed so far and revise as necessary – perhaps in this case, you realize that exclamation marks should be used sparingly! Developing a critical eye and a thick skin is crucial to the success of the product.

Final Thoughts

There’s no fast track to developing a product voice. It needs frequent revision, a bit of fearlessness to try something new, an openness to change, and a dual perspective of being detail-oriented with big-picture thinking. And you’ll know you’ve succeeded, not when someone says it’s perfect, but when you don’t “see” the writing at all – it effortlessly just becomes a part of the product. Its voice, in fact.

 

Shona O’Flaherty is a senior lead writer at Innovatia with ten years’ experience, with an educational background in translation and technical writing. Her experience as the team lead for a multi-platform, complex product have shaped her passion to create sustainable, effective, and user-friendly content. She is based in Galway, Ireland.

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