Playing with the Future of Technical Communication

I have a great group of mom friends who also happen to be technical communicators. One day last month, my friend posted this picture her 6-year-old daughter made and asked if technical writing is genetic. Ha!

The first 12 steps for making a dinosaur of Play-Doh

Her mom says, “These are her first 12 steps of 20 that show how to make a Play-Doh apatosaurus.” You may know the apatosaurus as the brontosaurus.

This elementary-school student definitely “gets” that the future of tech comm is in pictures. She knows her audience – likely a non-reading audience that can recognize numerals. Plus she starts at the very beginning, piecing the steps and not making any assumptions. She even shows how to pop the top off the container of Play-Doh.

I loved this illustration and just had to share. I got permission from the copyright holder through her legal representative, her mom. šŸ™‚ Thanks to both of you for sharing your talents!

So, how do we learn how to get the steps right? One educational exercise I’ve learned to demonstrate technical communication is to have students write out instructions for how to prepare a bowl of ice cream. You can have students write and illustrate the steps, and then exchange instructions to test the quality of the steps. Ice cream may never land in a bowl, or there may be no scoop tool, but it sure is fun to take a task and put it into the smallest self-contained step that you can. Students learn quickly that you should write down prerequisites and ensure your assumptions about the starting point match the end-users concept of the start point. I find myself coaching technical writing now that I work with a volunteer writing group. I wonder if I can run an ice cream demo at one of the doc sprints sometime. What are some other coaching ideas for technical writers?



  • April 23, 2011 - 12:03 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if technical writing is genetic. But we definitely have a budding visual-design genius here. Thanks for sharing that.

    It seems like the kitchen is a great place to teach technical writing. We’ve used a breakfast theme to teach DITA at SDI — using recipes to craft task topics and even incorporating concept topics (benefits of a healthy breakfast) and reference topics (types of omelettes; spices you’ll need).

  • April 23, 2011 - 1:05 pm | Permalink

    I think technical writing is genetic. If she starts taking things apart, you’ll know.

    As for exercises with steps, I became famous (back when I used to be somebody) for asking tech writing candidates to tell me how to make coffee, assuming I was newly arrived on this planet and had seen people drinking this beverage. It gave me a glimpse into how they approach a task — what assumptions they make, what questions they ask, etc. It’s a great way to illustrate how to separate the task from the concepts too. I did have one candidate answer “I don’t drink coffee”.

  • Carol Anne Wall
    April 25, 2011 - 7:24 am | Permalink

    Both of my girls were taught procedure writing in 2nd grade, and then it is revisited in 4th and 6th grade. When they both were working on their 2nd grade projects, I introduced them to usability testing. I had them give their procedures to me or their dad, and we had to follow them without their help.

    My oldest, who is a 6th grader now, got better with the usability testing. In 2nd grade, she was mad at us because we couldn’t “see” what she really meant with her instructions. She still got mad at us in 4th grade, but now as a 6th grader, she understands it’s about the writing, not the user (necessarily). It’s definitely a maturity thing, as they move from concrete to abstract thinkers.

  • April 26, 2011 - 11:43 pm | Permalink

    Love these responses, everyone! I laughed out loud when I read your comment Carol, that your daughter wanted to blame the user. Sounds like many developers who have sat behind the one-way glass in a usability lab. šŸ™‚

  • April 26, 2011 - 11:46 pm | Permalink

    That’s a great interview question, Janet, and an easy, brief test for a writer candidate. Not being much of a coffee maker myself I’d have trouble detecting accuracy in the response, hee hee. But it sure would be telling to hear how they’d talk through the process.

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  • susheela
    June 18, 2011 - 3:25 am | Permalink


    enjoyed reading this article and the responses! In fact, we start with asking to define steps to drink water from a bottle:) A procedure is so required for everything!

  • September 15, 2011 - 8:41 am | Permalink

    Hi Anne,

    So happy to have stumbled across your blog this morning. We stress the importance of image/text integration in our program from the first semester onward–I couldn’t agree with you more on this one.

    One of the challenges we have been addressing is: in a graduate program, how much prior experience should we expect from students in graphics? We have recently designed a “bridge course” for our incoming students who have absolutely no exposure to CS and the like, which has allowed us to focus more on design-related issues in our Foundations of Graphics course.

  • September 18, 2011 - 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the comments and for finding my site! Based on about five jobs in varying sizes of companies, I’ve found that the basics of graphical design including page layout and web layout are more valuable than actual drawing or graphic experience. You can usually ask specialists to create complex diagrams if you can rough out the general idea. Books like “Back of the Napkin” would help outline the skills I’ve found valuable in my career. Hope this helps.

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