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Simplifying complexity

Ask a technical writer what they do, and the most common response is that tech writers “simplify complexity.” In systems that are complex (supporting many tasks, options, functions, and information), we figure out user goals and create clear instructions on how users can achieve those goals. The technical writer’s core value is in his or her ability to simplify information in these complex systems.

But for all the talk about simplifying complexity, there’s not a lot written on how to do it. Just how do you make complex processes and concepts easy to follow? How do you help users achieve their goals in the context of sophisticated, confusing applications and code? Explaining concepts in plain language and using task-based steps is a great start, but it’s not the entire solution. We need to increase our skill at this game. Technical writers need to center on what’s complex for users, and use all the tools available to turn up the simplicity factor in ways that add real value to organizations.

I’m fascinated by the idea that my core value as a technical writer involves helping users make sense of complex systems. We can center our efforts around the user’s greatest pain, because that is where we can deliver the greatest value — and that is also where the space is the most interesting. We don’t deliver value by documenting simple, obvious instructions, or by providing instructions for interfaces and workflows that are already well-designed and intuitive. We deliver value by first identifying what users struggle with most, their point of most complexity and frustration, and then we wrestle that beast to the ground, pinning it into submission.

We need more focus on ways to simplify complexity. In this section of my site, I’ll build out a number of techniques and approaches for simplifying complexity. My hope is that by understanding the right techniques and approaches, we can do our jobs better. We can provide more value in our roles. We aren’t merely secretaries, grammarians, or formatters, not curators or publishers. We are knowledge creators.

The task of simplifying complexity is even more difficult in the landscape of developer and API documentation. I write for developers — people who have deeper, more comprehensive technical skills and understanding than I do. And yet, even so, I can still simplify information for them in ways that become vital to their success. Of course, simplifying complexity involves understanding enough of the domain and customer journey to speak at their level and in their terminology, but it’s more than that. Simplifying complexity involves incorporating a host of techniques that go beyond mere transmission of knowledge in a particular domain.

I will approach this topic similar to my API documentation site. That is, I’ll add to it continually over a period of months and years, constantly refining it and developing the content based on continued feedback, thoughts, research and experiments.

To get started, see Switching between macro and micro views with embedded maps. I welcome your feedback and insights.

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