May 2017
By Leah Guren

Image: © flyparade/

Leah Guren is the owner/operator of Cow TC. She has been active in the field of technical communication since 1980 as a writer, manager, Help author, and usability consultant. She now devotes her time to consulting and teaching courses and seminars in technical communication, primarily in Israel and Europe.




Facts and ethics in a post-truth era

There is an old Chinese saying that translates as, "May you live in interesting times." While you may think this is a nice thing to wish someone, it actually is a curse, because interesting in this context means chaos and unrest. We are, indeed, living in some interesting times.

In the past few months, we have witnessed political upheavals in Great Britain with Brexit. We’ve seen populist initiatives or candidates on the ballot in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Hungary (to name just a few). Most prominent is the situation in the United States, where an authoritarian administration has launched an all-out propaganda assault against the press, going so far as to ban the New York Times, the BBC, the Washington Post, CNN, and other venerable media journals from White House briefings.

The sight of a major world leader spouting blatant lies and attacking facts as "false" and reputable journalists as purveys of "fake news" is shocking. In a world where many people do not read reliable, vetted news sources, but rely on biased sound bites or whatever pops up in their Facebook feed, defending facts has become more and more difficult.

For those of us in technical communication, the challenge creates an almost visceral cognitive dissonance. We carry on our shoulders the responsibility of providing clear, accurate information for users. We know that truth is important and facts matter.

It matters

Consumers have become accustomed to seeking information about products from public forums, through customer reviews and other rating sites. But once they buy the product, they expect the company to provide them with the best possible product information.

And it is more than just consumer expectations. There are multiple regional and industry-based regulations (for example, EU directives or FDA requirements) that address the quality and completeness of product documentation. A company that fails to provide critical information for users may face loss of compliance approval or even legal action.

Our clients, in turn, rely on us to produce clear and effective documentation. While the client's subject matter experts (SMEs) are the experts on the products' details and facts, it is up to us to analyze, interpret, and communicate the right information in the right way. Documentation written by SMEs may be full of truth, and yet be fundamentally useless. It is our unique skill set that allows us to determine how to present the correct information in the most useful, accessible manner.

The role of professional TCs

The role of the professional TC is very much like that of an ethical journalist. For example:

  • Verify the truth. An ethical journalist must be able to track down and verify facts. In the same way, a technical communicator must be able to question, pursue, and verify facts. This means that when we receive contradictory information from different SMEs, we must be willing to dig deeper and determine what the truth is. One SME says the maximum setting is x; another says it is y. We must ask the right questions to determine why. There are always reasons for these differences of opinion, and it is up to us to understand them and determine the correct truth for the user.
  • Focus on what is relevant. An ethical journalist must draw the line at what is relevant to a story. Otherwise, the interconnected facts can make a story connect to everything (and therefore to nothing). Focus is essential to make the story clear and understandable. In the same way, a professional TC must be able to focus on what the user needs to know and do in any given scenario, and not get distracted by miscellaneous information (even if true). There is always a huge amount of truth related to a product that is completely irrelevant for the user. It is our job to take a firm stand and not allow the SMEs to clutter the documentation with irrelevant facts.
  • Identify the correct level of accuracy. An ethical journalist must use a level of accuracy that makes sense for the story. For example, in reporting on a case of bribery and corruption that involves tens of millions of euros, it makes sense to round the figures to the closest hundred thousand (or even million). Adding in the tiny detail adds nothing to the truth of the story. In the same way, a TC must know how to present the right level of accuracy in the product information. When presented with SMEs’ excessively detailed facts, we must be able to rephrase the facts in a way that is meaningful for the user task.
  • Create a coherent story. An ethical journalist must find a way to tell the story in a clear and compelling way. This is often in a recognized pattern or structure, such as following the natural chronology of events. In the same way, a professional TC must find the most logical and effective way to present the information, for example, based on user workflow. We are responsible for telling the story in a way that makes sense.

Our ethical responsibility

As professional TCs, we must always be advocates for truth and accuracy. For example, when a product manager instructs us to be vague about part of the instructions, perhaps for the convenience of marketing, it is our responsibility to verify that the lack of detail doesn’t hurt usability. Sometimes this means conducting simple usability tests. We should never meekly produce weak or incomplete documentation just because our client thinks it is OK. In doing our best for the user, we are ultimately doing the best for our client.

For each project, we should ask ourselves:

  • Is there critical information about the product that we aren’t telling the user?
  • Is the information we are writing verifiable? Have we checked it ourselves? Did we play with the product, replicate the steps, and review the workflow, or did we become lazy and simply accept what the SMEs told us?
  • Are we presenting the content in a clear and compelling way, or are we carelessly reproducing someone else’s idea of how it should be structured and organized?
  • Are there difficult questions we have not asked because they are awkward or uncomfortable?  

The challenge ahead

I fear that in the coming months, we risk becoming numb from the avalanche of "alternative facts". The danger is that this blatant disregard for the truth, along with the rampant use of disinformation, will become normalized, leaving us unable to distinguish the truth from lies.

To stay sane and preserve our ethics, each of us must accept the challenge to produce honest, truthful content in our documentation. We must also use our analytical skills to constantly evaluate information we read. If we as skilled, logical, analytical TCs cannot stand up for facts, science, data, and truth, then times will become a lot more interesting – and not in a good way.