Monday, July 21, 2014

Empathy Everywhere, Or Why Technical Writers Rule

The key skill for a technical writer is empathy: The ability to see the world from the reader's (or readers') point of view. Empathy doesn't mean agreeing with the reader, it merely means understanding and appreciating why the reader feels that way. You know you've achieved empathy when you can honestly say "I can see why you think I'm a complete jerk about this" (note: You don't have to think that you're a complete jerk).

What I think is so cool about this is that empathy is also the core skill in so many other fields. I've recently being thinking a lot about User Interface/User Experience design because I've been revamping an application for a client and writing a course on the topic. Empathy--the ability to see the problem domain/application from the user's point of view is critical to success in UI/UX design. I also spend a good deal of my life in negotiations (I'm a married man). Successful negotiation depends entirely on your ability to see the world as the person you're negotiating with sees it.

Of course, terminology changes. In UI/UX design we talk about "personas" (rather than "audiences") and "user stories" (rather than "scenarios") but, essentially, it's all about figuring out what matters to the user and using that to drive the design process. In negotiating we talk about "options" (what we'll present to the other person and what we ask the other person to offer to us) but, again, it's essential that we offer options that are attractive to that other person, that support their purpose in entering the negotiation and help them achieve their goals. In negotiation we don't talk about "explaining things" (the essence of technical writing, in many ways) but we do need to make it clear to the other person what is important to us so that the other person will make us an offer worth considering.

Really, the skills that make a great technical writer are the foundation skills for ruling the world...without anyone actually realizing that's what you're doing, of course.

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