November 2018
Text by Leah Guren

Image: © Santana Sangboowattana_123rf

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.


Is there a place for compassion in TC?

Data-driven business cases. Analytics. Standards. Methodologies. Certification. Open any TC-related magazine or journal and you will discover a strong focus on the business side of our industry.

As professional practitioners, we are urged to think of the cost of the content we create. At every conference, we see presentations urging us to talk about the "bottom line" and talk to managers about the monetary value of our services, rather than the value we bring to their customers.

On a certain level, it makes sense to think of our work in terms of analytics. We are the purveyors of technical information, which is the dry statement of facts about our company’s products and services. So why not look at us as just another cost center that must earn its keep within the company?

What we tend to overlook is that there are people on the receiving end of our work: Users are simply people who rely heavily on our content to be able to use the products they have purchased. And once people enter the equation, mere dollars, euros, or pounds cannot quantify the true cost and value of our work.


A lesson in compassion

Recently, I put my work on hold, left my dog with the babysitter, and flew across the world to help my mother recover from major surgery. She had undergone a complex and potentially dangerous spinal surgery, and her post-surgery care involved an extensive team of medical experts, specific equipment, and assistance from family members.

I was therefore involved in reviewing a huge amount of information that came from different sources:

  • Medical instructions provided verbally at the time of discharge from the hospital
  • Printed instructions provided by the medical team prior to surgery
  • Different instructions provided by the hospital for pre-surgery protocol
  • Printed instructions from the insurance fund regarding patient rights and coverage
  • Verbal and hands-on instructions for the equipment (neck brace), from the nursing staff
  • Manufacturer’s instructions (downloaded and printed later) for the neck brace
  • Verbal instructions from the visiting nurse, the physical therapist, and the occupational therapist

We quickly discovered that:

  • There was a great deal of conflicting information. For example, we received three different sets of instructions about pain medications.
  • With regards to the neck brace, the manufacturer’s instructions did not match the surgeon’s instructions, plus they included information about another model, making them even more confusing.
  • We spent a lot of time repeating information for different members of the medical team, despite their access to the same online records.
  • Critical bits of information were given only verbally, leading to misunderstandings.
  • Completely irrelevant and unnecessary information was given, leading to misunderstandings.

While none of the information was hard to understand on its own, the confusion and lack of coordination led to very poor communication. And because we are not talking about the instructions for a casual mobile app, but critical information necessary for the health and safety of a patient, this was very distressing. I found myself constantly switching modes between "care-giving family member" and "professional TC": As a concerned daughter, I felt frustrated. As a professional TC, I was appalled and angry. 

Consider my family’s situation: two otherwise healthy, highly intelligent, well-educated adults who have always taken an active and responsible role in their own health. They are fully capable of reading and understanding complex text, of finding logic errors, of critically assessing information, and in all respects performing at the extreme high end of what we would expect of a normal "general public" user group.

Based on the writing level of most of the printed information, there was an effort to write in clear, simple language. This means that the TCs had thought about the education of their target audience. So that is good, right?

But all of this fell apart in the face of the actual user scenarios. In other words, these educated, intelligent people were now dealing with pain, medication (which definitely clouded cognitive function), anxiety over the outcomes, and uncertainty about the future – all of which added up to extremely high levels of stress.

Those nice, clear product instructions would have functioned well in a controlled lab situation. In our situation, however, they had become confusing and stressful. But from the manufacturer’s perspective, these instructions were just fine: They were good enough to satisfy the Food and Drug Administration (or other compliance organizations) and the insurance company that approved the use of the device, and to give the medical professionals some idea of usage. The manufacturer does not rely on patient feedback or satisfaction with the device, as the patient has no choice (the device is dictated by the medical team, insurance, hospital, etc.). So why worry about writing clear patient instructions?

I was further angered that the health care organizations involved did not have professional TCs on their team. Clearly, no one had taken the responsibility to collect, analyze, coordinate, and filter information, either before, during, or after the procedure.


Tips for compassionate content

What more TCs need to realize is that traditional user analysis and needs analysis do not go far enough if they do not take into consideration stress levels of typical user scenarios. For example, think about the documentation or support that goes with most webinar or web-based conferencing platforms: When things go wrong, it is almost always when someone is trying to log in to a critical meeting. The user can be very stressed and anxious, yet most user assistance for these applications is written as if the user was sitting in their office, casually reading about the features, rather than feeling mounting panic over their inability to access a meeting.
Here are a few tips for building more compassion into your TC content:

  • When performing your audience needs analysis, always look at usage scenarios. Understanding the urgency of information can help you make better editorial choices regarding volume, tone, detail, etc.
  • Inconsistency is always stressful. ALWAYS. Users in stressful situations are never amused, entertained, or diverted by variations of terminology or nuances in instructions. 
  • There is a time and place for certain details. When someone is trying to get through the first week after surgery, you don’t need to tell them about what might or might not occur in an appointment 18 months away. Consider different content for different purposes, so that you can direct users to urgent solutions for stressful situations and more high-level and in-depth content for other times.
  • Even if you don’t write all the content, you have to curate it. You need to use all of your professional TC skills to coordinate information, organize it, avoid unnecessary repetition, make it consistent, etc. Don’t leave it up to the already stressed user to determine how to resolve content conflicts!
  • Get user feedback. When manufacturers market their products to someone other than the end user, they tend not to care about feedback from users. But it is important, and a little input can lead to great insights and improvements in the documentation.
  • Of course you must meet regulatory requirements, but you can go much further than that. 
  • Always be an advocate for the user! One day, it may be someone you love in the role of a stressed user.


Not every TC writes documentation for products or services where compassion is critical. But you may be surprised to discover the amount of stress that can occur with even the simplest products. (Try using a parking app when a traffic warden is approaching!) But by thinking about potentially stressful scenarios and advocating for better, clearer, more consistent content, we can help our users through difficult and scary situations.

And, by the way, my mom is making an excellent recovery.