If author Daniel Pink is right, technical writers’ jobs may be changing again.
Pink, who wrote A Whole New Mind, contends that the developed world is entering a new era—the so-called conceptual age—during which right-brained skills, such as design and storytelling, will become far more crucial than traditionally left-brained skills such as accounting and computer programming. He cites three trends:
- Automation: Computers are increasingly more powerful (no big surprise to anyone who has heard of Moore’s law). As they become powerful, software can replace some of the sequential, logical work formerly performed by our left brains. One simple example: Instead of hiring an accountant to review your taxes, you can buy an off-the-shelf software program that will calculate your taxes and grant you a refund for $19.
- Asia: Asian countries are brimming with ambitious, educated people who can often take on the jobs formerly done by Westerners. Anyone who has worked in IT in the last 10 years will have noticed that software development jobs sometimes disappear in developed countries, only to be replaced by staff in an Asian country, usually because of the cost savings.
- Abundance: Consumers have more choice than ever before. Most middle-class citizens have more material wealth than any generation in history. With all these choices at our disposal, many consumers can now buy well designed, luxury items that were once only available to wealthy consumers. For example, many consumers won’t simply settle for a utilitarian toaster that was on the market in the 1970s. Consumers now want a stainless steel, ergonomically designed appliance that can toast up to six slices of their favorite bread, and make a statement while residing on a granite kitchen countertop.
In short, some of the highly analytical jobs are becoming commodities that can be performed by a computer or an inexpensive worker in Asia. Pink contends that developing right-brain skills may help differentiate you and keep you more employable. He identifies six right-brain-associated aptitudes:
a) Symphony: Adding invention and big picture thinking
b) Meaning: The purpose is the journey, give meaning to life.
c) Design: Moving beyond function to engage the senses.
d) Story: Narrative added to products and services, not just argument.
e) Empathy: Going beyond logic and engaging emotion.
f) Play: Bringing humor and light-heartedness to business and products.
As technical writers, I believe many of us already incorporate some of these aptitudes into our work.
Many of us already marry good writing with design to make content more accessible and easier to understand. When you marry the two skills, technical documentation may actually be enjoyable to read. I personally think Apple’s technical documentation is useful and—dare I say it—beautiful.
In contrast, there are many examples of documentation that are terribly written and almost impossible to decipher. Pink argues that consumers are often willing to spend more on good design. Increasingly, consumers want something that makes a statement. As proof, see the toaster example I mentioned.
Pink argues that to make your message memorable and compelling, we must incorporate the techniques of good storytelling. I personally don’t aspire to make my online help mirror a Hollywood script but I do think we could improve the way we deliver conceptual information. For example, we can incorporate metaphors and add more visuals to drive home our message.
As technical writers, we’re not immune to off-shoring. In Vancouver (where I live), I’ve seen a number of companies try to off-shore technical documentation. Employing and mastering right-brain activities may help us stand out and even stave off job losses.