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What is "technical documentation"?

"Technical documentation" is the generic term for documentation with regard to a product. People mainly associate the term with the documents and information that are passed on to the public by the manufacturer:

  • User instructions
  • Operating instructions
  • Servicing instructions
  • Installation manuals
  • Software manuals
  • (Link intern) Online help

(Link extern) tekom, the "German professional body for technical communication and information design" has a wider definition

The term 'technical documentation' refers to different documents with product-related data and information that are used and stored for different purposes. “Different purposes” mean: Product definition and specification, design, manufacturing, quality assurance, product liability, product presentation; description of features, functions and interfaces; intended, safe and correct use; service and repair of a technical product as well as its safe disposal.

This broader view, in which all documents that are generated during the product life cycle are viewed as part of the technical documentation is certainly justified. After all, the aim is to make available the technical know-how and product history for subsequent users of the information (be they engineers or operators, patent agents or public prosecutors specializing in product liability.

The focus for service providers in the field of technical documentation is, however, mainly on documents that are required after the production process — by sales people, system integrators, installation staff, operators, service technicians, waste disposal companies etc. The reasons are simple:

  • Great demands are placed on the documents in terms of comprehensibility and clarity (with respect to the specific target group), graphical design, adherence to standards/directives / public laws, linguistic correctness etc.
  • The documents are passed on to the public, i.e. are part of the public presentation of the manufacturer
  • For the design of the documents, relatively little manufacturer-specific knowledge and know-how — especially no company secrets — are normally required. Instead, a lot of experience with the tools and target media is required, what becomes particularly apparent in case of an online publication such as help system (WinHelp, HTMLHelp, JavaHelp or "simply" DHTML-Help).

This combination of basic knowledge required, experience of fulfilling the requirements and of documentation-specific specialist knowledge, an "absolute must" combination if you consider the reasons for outsourcing stated above, is available from one particular profession: the technical writer / technical editor. These professionals are the mediators between the manufacturer/designer and the decision maker/user, either within the company or as service provider

By the way: At Transcom we often prefer the more general term "(Link intern) 'technical communication'" instead of 'technical documentation' because it presents the scope of our services in a more accurate way.

Instructions versus directions versus manual versus handbook versus …

Often, there is still confusion about whether something should be called operating instructions, user manual, user guide, user directions, operating manual etc. pp. The standards for technical editors and the law makers are also not consistent in their terminology. Let's try to sort it out from a linguistic point of view:

  • "Directions" is derived from "to direct": Here it is the superior who directs the subordinate, i.e. the boss directs the staff member (or parents their child). Hence, user directions can only be given internally (within the company). Accordingly, the user direction is the document that details the procedures for a specific workplace. It takes into account the specific demands and requirements within the company. This makes it clear that user directions cannot be supplied by the manufacturer of the product: the manufacturer has no knowledge of the company internals of the user.
  • "Instructions" is derived from "to instruct". Somebody capable of something already instructs someone else who wants to learn just this. Here two entities meet eye-to-eye, e.g. manufacturer and user. Therefore, the instructions are the document that communicates, how to employ and use the product. When "instructing" however, you do not really communicate any theory, i.e. the description of the product is — strictly speaking — not part of the instructions. The term "instructions" is independent of the publishing medium, it does not tell you whether it comes on paper or online
  • "User instructions" or "user manual": The first word of each group already says it — it is about using the product. Because "manual" is usually associated with a "book", "user manual" is the book, in which the usage is described. The publication medium is specified. On the other hand, the term "user instructions" is media independent.
  • Operating instructions / operating manual: Here again it is all about the first word in the phrase — it is generally about the operation. This is more general than just using something; it starts with transport and storing, is then followed by installation and commissioning up to using the product, continues with cleaning, service and repair and ends up with dismantling and disposal. A document describing operating should therefore be correspondingly comprehensive (not forgetting the safety information).

Of course, the operating instructions may be separated into its individual parts, i.e. one document for each — transport/storing, installation etc. Also, the separation may follow the different participant rolls (target groups: System integrator, user/operator, administrator, service technician etc. All these distinctions are centered on the content of the corresponding document. The question of the medium used to publish the document is not answered.

Publication media

Technical documentation is not confined to a specific publication medium. It may be distributed on paper (as a bound book, in a ring binder, stapled brochure, lever-arch file, loose-leaf binder, etc.) as well as PDF file, online help, web pages or similar on CD or on the internet.

Because technical documentation today is often published on different media simultaneously (as manual enclosed with the product and as PDF file or set of web pages on the internet) it makes sense to select a description that does not specify the publication medium.

A PostScript

You find this text strange? Can you remember? — At school you occasionally got the task of writing an essay in which all words from a predefined list had to appear. The result? Well, you probably have not thought about it for a long time.

This page has been designed following the same principle; only that today the search engines and the searching surfers have given us the task: No matter which combination of hit words relevant for technical documentation is entered — the search engine should always list at least this page of our web presence. In turn, our other pages are more direct along the subject.

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