Writing at the User Interstices

by Andrew Oram

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The most coveted writing assignment in the computer industry is the overview of an integrated software package. It calls for careful pacing, creative metaphor, and lavish graphics, all integrated with the highest skill. Here stands the pinnacle of a career, to be "writing at the user interface."

Writers have been known to wait years for such gems. In the meantime, they churn out little update packages containing new functions and work-arounds for nickel-and-dime restrictions. Everything in these projects is a tweak or a hook for existing applications. I call this unhappy chore "writing at the user interstices."

But guess what -- the tweaks and hooks are turning out to be the mainstay of modern computer documentation!

How can I make such a claim? First, standard products are winning out in the industry. A handful of companies generate the basic interfaces, and everyone else simply makes changes and additions.

As computer systems become standardized, so do user applications. Thus, people are likely to dip into your manual for a quick tip when they upgrade or port an application. They are much less likely to read the manual thoroughly before creating an application.

The pace of the computer field has sped up to the point where a single product can be released three or four times a year. Consider this together with the shrinking resources in the computer industry, and you can see that companies are going to depend more and more on quick updates rather than full-scale, new books.

Perhaps you think that online help and hypertext will rescue you from a purgatory at the interstices. But these new media take fragmentation to extremes. The whole document consists of bits and pieces of data, created incrementally.

On the whole, I prefer being at the user interstices. Instead of keeping my head down, my eyes focused on one product, I'm scanning the horizon for trends and dangers. To fit my contributions to the users' needs, I have to really learn what every option and extension in my product is intended for. I end up seeing a product grow over time, and appreciated both the achievements and the weaknesses of the product developers' effort.

At the interstices, writers don't waste creative energy inventing terms. No excuses about using everyday language to make the product easier to understand! Industry-standard terms are central to any clear exposition. And when a dozen companies have similar systems and features, writers are less likely to wax ecstatic over the beauty and brilliance of the product. They have to get down to business and show users what the systems do for them.

In short, the modern pace of the computer industry is forcing us to meet our users' needs through direct, ad hoc solutions. The aesthetics of document creation come our way less often. So writers have to find satisfaction through a deeper insight and involvement in the computer field itself.

Andrew Oram is a technical writer at Concurrent Computer Corporation in Westford, Mass.

© 2000 by STC Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA
Originally published November/December, 1990 in the Boston Broadside