Trends in Technical Communication: Affective User Assistance

In the excellent STC article, “The Emotional Factor in User Manuals: How to Use Affective Assistance to Create More Loyal Customers,” Ellis Pratt suggests that rather than addressing customers in the neutral tone of traditional user documentation,  technical communicators must start tailoring messages to incorporate context, mood, and type of customer, aiming for a more “human” or conversational interaction.

Emotion in Technical Documentation?

To make his point, Pratt contrasts the types of words–and the implied emotional stance–towards our customers, pre-sale versus post-sale:

Companies spend a lot of money finding appropriate emotional words to persuade prospective customers to buy their products or services. However, this word choice changes once you become a customer. When it comes to giving customers support and assistance, emotional words nearly always disappear; information suddenly becomes like Mr. Spock in Star Trek–cool and unemotional.

Tone Based on Context

As an example, Pratt suggests designing assistance that is helpful or cautionary, friendly or unfriendly, depending on the context.  Documentation professionals can further engage customers by developing visual personalities, according to customers’ various personas, as people tend to identify with virtual personalities, similar to their own.

According to Pratt, making support documentation more closely reflect our customers’ feelings can help better lead customers to love our products.

Generation Y and Authority

Ellis Pratt’s ideas on moving away from the traditional authoritative tone in technical documentation correspond especially well with a Stars and Stripes article on Generation Y, which describes changes in the way the US military trains today’s recruits.

According to P.W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute–a Washington think tank–drill seageants nowadays are more like mentors, than the authority figures of the past.

In Singer’s description below, I see the future not just for technical communicators, but for all communication professionals:

Gen Y servicemembers are less likely than older generations to tolerate the military’s “do what we tell you to do without question” approach, Singer said.

He said a battalion commander in Iraq told him conveying authenticity was crucial for any military leader.

“They want to understand why you’re giving that order and that you really stand behind it,” Singer said.

Airman 1st Class Brittany Christensen, 22, of RAF Mildenhall, England, said her peers are more opinionated and less impressed with authority than previous generations.

Despite these differences, Christensen said she still looks to older folks for guidance.

Your Thoughts?

Guidance, versus authority. Providing more context about why the information we offer is important, as much as the steps themselves. Earning the respect of our audience, before we can expect customers to follow our instructions. Taking a more collaborative approach, rather than providing the definitive answer.

Is this the future of technical communication? How can we as technical communicators incorporate this more “human” tone, in our documentation deliverables? What other ways does this approach change the nature of our deliverables and roles within our respective organizations?

Can the technical documentation, as Ellis Pratt suggests, become a more central part of why customers love our products?

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1 thought on “Trends in Technical Communication: Affective User Assistance

  1. Very interesting. I’ve always believed tone was an important element of technical writing. We have to engage our audience, not put them to sleep! I’m not sure though if there is a decision to make regarding guidance vs. authority. Guidance seems to imply a friendly or at least non-threatening manner of leading, teaching, or mentoring–which all are really things technical documentation/communication must do. Authority doesn’t come unless one is knowledgeable and can present themselves and their message in an understandable, approachable manner. I am definitely not a member of the Y generation; however, having raised a brood who are and working with, mentoring, and having even been managed by Y gen members, I find their approaches and attitudes refreshing and welcome. Authority without the ability to be approachable and understandable isn’t really authority to me–to me, it is an attitude we can discard: “the technical stuff is hard and you must obey”. We’re writing to and for an adult audience for the most part–treat them like peers!

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