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Technical Writing vs Information Architecture

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Technical writers, remember when your job was to produce standalone deliverables? Print manuals, CHM files, quick-start booklets and the like? While documentation teams usually worked from a set of standards, the structure and presentation of the information in these deliverables were generally left up to the writer.

When structured authoring and content reuse transformed technical communication, and the sheer amount of information to organize grew exponentially on the web, it became clear that working in this standalone-document paradigm was no longer an option. Clear and sustainable content strategies became a must with documentation teams looking to reuse content and reduce overhead and duplication.

Enter the Information Architect

This need was answered with an emerging specialization, information architecture (IA). The information architect bridges the gap between the technical communication and user experience (UX) worlds by developing plans for how a team’s content library will be structured and presented to its audiences. They accomplish this by creating strategies for making content optimally retrievable and consumable, balancing logical structure with the way the specific user population thinks and works. Simply put, the information architect draws up the blueprints for the content set, and the tech writers handle the construction.

Information architecture has emerged as a discipline distinct from technical writing, largely because it frequently encompasses a company’s overall online content strategy, beyond just the user documentation. Information architects often dictate the user experience of a site by structuring where and how users find the tools and information they’re looking for.

For its emphasis on planning and organizing information, information architecture has been touted as a natural specialization for library science and UX professionals. While this is certainly true, I would argue that few professionals are better suited to assume the information architect role than the technical writer, for a number of compelling reasons.

Technical Writers Understand the Product and Its Users

An information architect would not much useful input on a content strategy if he didn’t have a clear understanding of how the product being documented works, and how people use it. This understanding has been a requirement for technical writers since day one. Good technical writers are skilled in working with developers, product managers, support engineers, and end users to gain a clear picture of product use cases and task workflows. They can combine these varying perspectives to present content in ways that are both logical and real-world useful. This is a key information architecture skill that an established technical writer already has in her toolbox.

Technical Writers Understand Information Structures

Technical writers are intimately aware of how content can be structured, whether planning that structure for their own team’s documentation sets or working within an established structure. They are accustomed to considering how to structure a content set to be used for multiple outputs (print, WebHelp, etc.) and on multiple devices (desktop, smartphone, tablet). They know how to tailor content structures for different audiences and user roles. For example, end-user content may break tasks and procedures down into manageable chunks, while a system administrator’s documentation may be more workflow oriented. Experienced technical writers can make these kinds of distinctions with relative ease.

Technical Writers Understand Content Strategy

  • What needs are we meeting with this content? What goals will it accomplish?
  • Where can content be reused so it only needs to be updated once?
  • How will we keep the content up to date?
  • How flexible and sustainable is the content plan? Will it adapt to changes well, or will it need to be thrown out and redone?

These are just a few of the questions an information architect must answer–and questions that technical writers already grapple with. Even in teams that don’t have a designated “information architect,” technical writers bring their expertise to evaluate proposed or established documentation plans and try to poke holes in them. The technical writer’s ethic of continuous improvement translates into documentation strategies that get more and more refined over time, bringing tremendous value to projects requiring an information architect to manage all the content.

These are just a few of the ways in which the information architecture and technical writing worlds overlap. If you are a technical writer who likes drawing up the blueprints as well as building the structures brick by brick, information architecture could be the next logical progression in your technical communications career.