Who Is the Technology For?

Among my various projects, I help a space advocacy group edit their conference papers from time to time. Being a Mars-focused organization, they tend to write papers about building settlements on the red planet. Recently, I recruited a friend into the group to help with developing the images that can bring these settlements to life. He had questions that the designers hadn’t considered.

If you’re designing cool, futuristic stuff, whether it’s a new car or gadget or a town on Mars, it’s easy to get caught up in the coolness of the technology. After all, it’s designed to do things never done before or allowing people to live somewhere they’ve never been before. How cool is that?

Occasional challenges arise, however, when someone starts asking the engineers, architects, or other designers, “What’s it good for?” “How would someone use that?” or “Why will someone want to use that?” These types of questions can come across as rude to the designer. Their thinking is, “Isn’t the good of this object obvious?” It can feel like you’re questioning the value of their work.

This sort of questioning happens frequently in the aerospace communications world. However, it can also happen in the marketing departments of software companies or the public affairs departments of government agencies. The people designing have one set of ideas and assumptions that are often unspoken because they’re so internalized that they don’t need to be spoken.

However, technical communicators, user experience consultants, conceptual artists, and other professionals often need to have those unspoken assumptions spoken aloud, especially if they’re asked to communicate about a new project. And while the communicator might be familiar with the organization’s assumptions and priorities, it’s important that those are communicated to the general public.

When you’re in a situation like this, you want to approach the designers with a bit of tact. Maybe compliment them about some specific feature(s) of the project before you hit them with the existential questions. You might need to reiterate your mission: “I’ll be writing this for people who might never have seen or heard of your organization before, perhaps even audiences who don’t normally see your work. They’re going to ask different questions than someone who’s familiar with this. I’m not questioning the rightness of this project, I’d just like to hear from you how different audiences will benefit from this and how.” Then proceed with your other “rude” questions. You could also frame your questions with the explanation that different people will need different reasons to be convinced of the awesomeness of Product X.

As a side note to my engineering friends: this is a great reason to include communicators or non-engineers in the early planning process of your design work. The questions they ask might help you design a better product!

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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 Who Is the Technology For?

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    Terrific post, Bart. You’re right: The engineers make assumptions about the goodness of their designs, and we technical writers assume the engineers will be receptive to our questions. As you say, a little (or a lot of) tact goes a long way.

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