It’s Getting Kind of Haptic: Technical Writing in the Age of Tactile Interfaces

Recently I went to the Secrets of the Empire virtual reality (VR) experience (you can read about that here). It was a game environment mixing VR and physical elements. While there was a brief script introducing this team-based, first-person-shooter game, for the most part the participants operated without instructions. It’s supposed to be intuitive, with no need for written instructions or help to read. Video games and even movies have been moving computer and other interfaces in the direction of a world without documentation…or, seemingly, writing. Does a technical writer fit in such a world? Yes, but it’s not immediately obvious.

Manipulating Data (and Time) with Our Hands

In addition to my recent video game experience, several movies I’ve seen got me to thinking about how a technical writer is supposed to find work if people are using tactile (or haptic) interfaces to perform tasks. Examples include: Johnny Mnemonic (1995), Minority Report (2002), Iron Man (2008), and Avengers: Infinity War (2018).

Johnny Mnemonic

Image source: Johnny Mnemonic

Minority Report

Image source: Minority Report

Iron Man

Image source: Iron Man

Infinity War

Image source: Avengers: Infinity War

Admittedly, in nearly all of these instances, the characters are working in a science-fictional/unreal environment. Johnny Mnemonic is working in a virtual internet akin to Second Life; John Anderton is working with a futuristic police database capable of predicting crimes in the future; Tony Stark is operating a super-duper mechanized suit of powered armor; and most intriguingly, Thanos uses a holographic, wrist-mounted interface (via the Time Stone) to manipulate time itself. Yet the expectation is there in all four instances: using physical gestures to perform computing and other activities…with few to no words required! 

What’s a tech writer to do in such a future?

The good news is, we’re not going away any time soon. We are not just physical beings but verbal creatures, and several of our fictional interfaces also include talking to a computer, which requires, yes, words, and scripts for the computer to use to respond to our commands. And we’ll be pushing nouns and verbs around for centuries to come.

The Opportunity

These types of computer interfaces are being designed for individuals who think or act more verbally (speaking) or kinesthetically (moving) than in literary form. Some folks are not comfortable with their typing or spelling skills to search for what they want. Instead, they ask Siri, Alexa, or some other virtual assistant. Being a reader, I prefer to use text, and in ten years of iPhone use, I have yet to activate the Siri, I’m certain much to the dismay of Apple’s programmers.

Regardless of your preferred form of interaction–text, voice, or gesture–will you as a technical communicator have a role in this increasingly less-text-oriented future? Yes.

  • Requirements Writing: This might be the most important role a technical communicator can serve in developing future interfaces. Engineers need a set of functions to design to, and it helps if those requirements are written well with the end user’s needs in mind.
  • Interface Design: While the visually minded communicators will do most of the heavy lifting in describing and visualizing these new interfaces, words and clear function descriptions will be needed.
  • Script Writing: The “story” of that Secrets of the Empire environment I visited had to have a script behind it. Even if the individuals in the environment are choosing how to act, someone has to describe how the game environment will react. Example: “If the user pushes button X, the door will open; if the user pushes any other button, the computer will take over and say ‘You’re not very good at this’.” This will be an especially rich opportunity for frustrated storytellers…if you can’t write novels for pay, perhaps you could get paid to develop the script for an interactive training environment…or video game.
  • Usability Design: While I was not fond of having no technical manual for my iPhone, once someone showed me the various physical gestures used to manipulate the interface (swipe, zoom), I was impressed with the intuitive nature of the actions. That’s not to say the completely new user will immediately “get it.” True story: the first time I saw a mouse, I had no idea how it worked. With no one around, I was trying to move the cursor around the screen by fiddling with the roller ball (this would’ve been the 1990s, bear with me) underneath the controller. I had to watch someone drag the mouse around the desktop before I got how it worked. This brings me to another point of entry for the technical writer…
  • Interface Training: As new interfaces are developed, someone will have to train new users how they work and what the limitations of the interfaces will be. That means writing training scripts for YouTube videos at the very least. Instructional design is also a place where technical writers can contribute, as the discipline helps articulate and define the methods for achieving learning objectives (“By the end of this training, the user should be able to control the Iron Man armored suit in safely in flight”).

The bottom line is that I believe there is still room for us, regardless of what the future Tony Starks of the world develop. The information can’t remain in the head of one person if others have to use it…and that is where the writer adds value.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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1 Response to It’s Getting Kind of Haptic: Technical Writing in the Age of Tactile Interfaces

  1. Bart Leahy says:

    Follow-up True Story: I spent one night arguing with Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, and Natasha Romanoff about requirements for an Avengers communication system. Welcome to geekhood in middle age!

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