Instructional Design and Technical Writing

Introduction

What is the relationship between Instructional Design and Technical Writing? In what ways do these roles and skill sets overlap, and in which ways are they distinct?

Though Instructional Designers and Technical Writers will often work under the same roof or under the same team, and may collaborate on projects, they have typically been viewed as distinct jobs with distinct roles. However, recent developments in communication tools and changes in the way we think about learning have caused the boundaries between the disciplines to become fuzzier and more porous than they might initially appear. This article will look at some of the overlap and difference between the two fields, recent trends of convergence between the disciplines, and possibilities for the future.

Technical Writing and Instructional Design: a Comparison

Technical writing, as the name implies, traditionally involved writing manuals or documentation to support hardware or software. This included writing user, operation, or maintenance manuals for equipment, formal documentation of standard operating procedures (SOPs), or documentation of APIs or libraries for software. The Technical Writer engages with hardware/software developers and engineers to document key information about the systems and products.

Instructional Design on the other hand focuses on:

  •  Identifying goal performances
  • Identifying performance, skill, and knowledge gaps between what is expected and what is
  • Identifying training objectives
  • Designing training interventions to close gaps, including instructional strategies, media approach, and training delivery method, and
  • Designing assessments to measure learning.

To get needed information, the Instructional Designer engages with subject matter experts (SMEs) in the relevant discipline.

Technical writing has typically focused on text-based written materials with still images, photos, graphs, and charts. The intended media has often, traditionally speaking, been print, though in the more recent period, this has shifted to include digital texts as well. The end product has been mainly text-based resources meant to be used by people involved with a company’s hardware and software products as on-the-job or on-task references.

The products resulting from Instructional Design processes have run the gamut from written materials, classroom lessons, workshops, eLearning, and blended learning, and has involved various media, including still images, photos, graphs, charts, videos, and animations. The end result has been learning resources meant to be used as part of a formal training course, to either help learning, allow practice of what is learned, or test how well the student learned.

Technical Writing and Instructional Design: A Convergence?

So this seems relatively clear cut, and probably, historically speaking, it was. However, ongoing developments in the past decade or so have served to erode some of these distinctions.

Some describe the difference between the two fields as being that Instructional Design focuses on promoting learning and performance improvement and measuring achievement, while Technical Writing seeks simply to inform. However, on close examination, this does not seem to hold up. After all, if the Technical Writer is being paid to inform, it is obvious that it is toward some intended end of learning or performance support. There is at least implicitly some understanding that the user is supposed to learn and better his use of the documented product through the reference.

Some might not think of technical manuals as learning materials, since they aren’t used as materials in a course, and users don’t take a test after using them. Most users utilize manuals as references. When they have a question, they look up the relevant section, and find out what they need to know. This is a form of learning, however. It is simply a different form of learning called informal learning. Informal learning is the learning that takes place outside of formal courses, often in an ad hoc, unplanned, task and needs-based manner. A learner, often an adult learner, though not necessarily, has a question. The person looks up a reference in one of the resources available at hand, whether from computers or people. The person gets the question answered, and gets back to work.

This is “just-in-time” learning within the workplace and within the normal workflow rather than “just in case” learning  carried out away from the workplace in a course. If you think about it, this is actually our natural tendency in learning. When we are stuck with something, be it a game, a piece of software, a piece of equipment, we don’t tend to look for some formal course. We seek out quick focused resources that will answer our question. This could take the form of some sort of quick reference document or a person whose knowledge and experience you value.

Informal learning is less well understood than formal learning, but is ironically how most of us do most of our learning, by far. Instructional Design has always been embedded within the larger field of Human Performance Technology, which is a generalized approach for diagnosing performance problems in organizations and crafting interventions which do not necessarily involve training.

In recent years, the Instructional Design field has begun to look more seriously at informal learning tools, in particular performance support systems, electronic performance support systems,  and job aids as more effective alternatives to formal training for many aspects of workplace learning.

Instead of always designing lengthy courses to be taken by learners at a separate time and place from their work, increasingly, learning materials are designed in smaller instructional pieces indexed and searchable on company intranets. When workers need to learn how to do some task, or are stuck, or need a reminder, they look up their question in the company system, and locate some reference material. They check out the material, and when they understand, they return to their task. The whole experience might take only a few minutes, at the work desk.

Parallel to this, the scope of Technical Writing has expanded to include wider modes of reference and support documentation beyond traditional written manuals. Technical Writers do not only write manuals, but are also called on to create online help files, FAQ banks, and knowledge base items. There has also been a push, as streaming online video has become easier to deal with, for Technical Writers to use video tutorials as a more engaging method of product documentation. Explanatory or demonstrative videos, taken either with cameras or screen capture software like Camtasia, are hosted either on the company knowledge base or sites like YouTube. Technical Writers can also find themselves involved with internal wikis, or blogs. In some cases, this has even included direct interaction with the user community and even curation/management of user generated content, whether on discussion forums or social media.

There is a powerful overlap appearing here between Technical Writing and Instructional Design as applied to informal learning materials.

The question comes as to whether there is a sort of convergence going on and to what extent. Are these ultimately different jobs, or just different points on a spectrum of a common domain of technical communication? A common shared skill set can be seen, including such skills as:

  • Communicating with subject technical experts to get needed information
  • Understanding the characteristics and needs of the intended user and their work environment
  • Being able to rapidly assimilate new information
  • Coming up with ways to explain this information in a simple, well-structured, easy to understand way attuned to the needs of the audience
  • Implementing these explanation, delivering it using whatever tools are available.

On one hand, Technical Writers have been known to sometimes cross over to Instructional Design or Course Development positions.

The tools of Technical Writers have expanded in recent years to allow modes of explanation that might previously have been the domain of Instructional Designers. Recent editions of Adobe Framemaker, a popular Technical Writing tool, have allowed incorporation of video, 3D models or animations, flash presentations, and audio. As books move from something made to print on paper to something used on an e-reader or tablet, it is no longer necessary to stick to static images for support documentation. With the explosion of ebooks on media capable devices like smartphones and tablets, the very definition of what a book or manual is has come into question.

As books are increasingly consumed through electronic screens rather than on paper, old restrictions need not apply. A book can become a multimedia presentation, with different media used as appropriate to bring across different points to the reader. An interactive 3D model from AutoCAD files embedded in a manual can communicate the 3D structure of a system or piece of equipment better than a static image from one fixed perspective. An embedded animation can better bring to life a process or flow. An embedded video can bring to life a maintenance procedure in a much more compact way than through text and static graphics. The decisions involved in deciding when to use what form of media are precisely the sorts of skills traditionally used by Instructional Designers in choosing a media strategy for instructional multimedia.

Meanwhile, job descriptions for some Instructional Design openings read more like Technical Writer jobs, with emphasis on manuals, help files, FAQs, and wikis. Designers in such positions will use more “Technical Writer” oriented development tools such as Camtasia, Robohelp, and Dreamweaver. The need to document systems that go through increasingly shorter cycles of development and update has made it harder to keep up with this pace with traditional Instructional Design via formal courses. This has led to more use of shorter, informal learning resources hosted on company networks.

Key Differences Between Technical Writing and Instructional Design

It’s important to note however that while the sorts of projects and documents that Technical Writers and Instructional Designers are called to work on are overlapping more and more, there are important differences in skill sets.

Instructional Designers, particularly those with formal training, tend to have more developed formal guidance for needs analysis. They also have more formal grounding in the psychology of learning and in systems thinking and analysis. They also tend to have experience with designing for a broader range of media and interaction types. Instructional Designers also have more experience with assessment of learning.

Technical Writers, on the other hand, tend to have much more refined skills in verbal communication.This includes:

  • Clarity, simplicity, and conciseness of expression
  • Descriptive and explanatory skills
  • Document formatting skills to ensure improved aesthetics and easier visual processing, and
  • Editing skills such as spelling and grammar.

Though these skills are rooted in the written or printed word, much of it transfers well to other media of verbal expression, particularly audio narration scripting. Often, Technical Writers have formal training in writing, whether in Technical or Creative Writing.

Conclusion

So clearly the two skill sets are not completely interchangeable. There are large overlaps, but with specific areas of focus and expertise. For the time being, it is more appropriate to consider the two roles as complementary. On a larger project, the two would probably work together, with each involved in different aspects. It is an interesting question though how this will evolve and play out in the future. As Technical Writers expand their horizons toward a broader range of media, and Instructional Designers expand their focus to include informal learning and performance support, will the two fields undergo a certain amount of convergence as facets of a general field of Technical Communication? And what impact would that have on professional development within the two disciplines?

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