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Maybe technical communication really is rocket science!

by Geoff Hart

Previously published, in a different form, as: Hart, G.J. 2000. Maybe technical communication really is rocket science! the Exchange 7(1):4–5.

I love playing with truisms, because even when they contain a healthy proportion of truth, a little inspection often reveals that they conceal as much truth as they illuminate. Take, for example, the notion that technical communication is an art, not a science. Despite the growing body of research on what we do for a living, the prevailing consensus when technical writers hang out and talk “biz” is that what we do partakes equally of art and science. I’ve certainly never heard anyone argue that technical communication involves whitecoated lab workers running users through a maze, and subsequently “sacrificing” them to examine their brains to detect changes that demonstrate learning has occurred—but given the way we feel about users who don’t read our manuals or use our online help, I suspect I’d find considerable support for this approach to usability testing.

In fact, engineering is probably a better match for technical communication than either art or science. Engineering is a fascinating profession because in many ways it does blend art and science, and because it relies on application of the science rather than discovery for its own sake, which is the traditional hallmark of science. Engineers learn all kinds of complex math to predictably and reliably describe how materials behave, and once you can describe something mathematically, then what else could it be but a form of science? Yet the best engineering also acknowledges good design, at least if (like me) you accept the notion that a form that imitates function can be aesthetic, and even beautiful. Moreover, beneath the veneer of science, even engineering relies on less quantifiable things; ask an engineer about finite-element analysis and you’ll discover why engineers sometimes refer to their field as “the Art”. It’s also why you’ll hear the word “elegance” in fields ranging from mathematics to industrial design, where you’d expect engineering science to hold sway.

So let’s dig a little deeper. If I’m going to claim that our field isn’t a science, I need to first define my terms. So just what is a science? “Science” is a philosophy of how to investigate and solve problems, and scientific inquiry follows four typical steps:

  1. Based on an existing body of knowledge or an observation of the natural world, form a hypothesis.
  2. Test that hypothesis under known, controlled conditions, so you can determine what factors influence the hypothesis.
  3. Revise your hypothesis, if necessary, based on the results of the test.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 as needed. This involves “replication”, to prove that your results weren’t just a statistical fluke; “independant confirmation”, to ensure that other people see the same things you saw; and “iteration”, to let you progressively refine your hypothesis.

The inability to refute a hypothesis is also an important part of science; the old phrase “the exception that proves the rule” arose from the fact that the best hypotheses not only predict results, but also predict cases in which the hypothesis should fail.

Interestingly, you’ll note that none of these points so much as mentions mathematics. That’s appropriate, because even though math is one of the most powerful tools of science, it is not in itself the touchstone of science. What’s interesting is that as soon as you remove math from the <ahem> equation, these four steps seem remarkably parallel to the process of technical communication:

  1. Based on audience analysis, hypothesize about which of several “best practices” or “standards” apply to that particular audience.
  2. Create a document and perform usability tests under a variety of controlled or semicontrolled conditions.
  3. Revise the document, if necessary, based on the results of that testing.
  4. Repeat steps 1-3 as needed. This involves replication, to ensure that you’ve accurately characterized your audience; “independant confirmation”, to ensure that you’ve guessed right and met the needs of the audience; and “iteration”, to allow for ongoing improvement.

The missing step, of course, is application, and that’s where the engineering part comes into it. Unlike science, which focuses on expanding the horizons of knowledge, engineering emphasizes application of the results of science; moreover, it doesn’t ignore the artistic (subjective) elements of that application. Does that sound like technical communication at all? If not, maybe it should; technical communication may not be rocket science, but it certainly seems to be “word engineering”

Another of my favorite truisms is that “those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it”. Fortunately, that doom isn’t always a terrible fate. In many ways, the modern state of technical communication parallels the state of biological and other sciences around 100 years ago: much of the work performed by the “natural history researchers” of the last century involved observation and investigation, often in the absence of theory. Indeed, many of these researches were either nonmathematical or used relatively unsophisticated mathematics, even though codified approaches to research had already begun to evolve, and though considerable mathematical sophistication was already being brought to bear on the really tough problems. What’s interesting is that these branches of scientific inquiry hadn’t yet become codified and predictable enough to be considered engineering; now, the existence of fields such as “genetic engineering” tells us how far basic science has come. It will be interesting indeed to see how technical communication follows this same historical course.

My essays on scientific communication have now been collected in the following book:

Hart, G. 2011. Exchanges: 10 years of essays on scientific communication. Diaskeuasis Publishing, Pointe-Claire, Que. Printed version, 242 p.; eBook in PDF format, 327 p.

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