What’s Wrong with Tech Writing?

Three little words: context, context, context

Kit Eaton
Kit Eaton
Nov 14, 2013 · 5 min read

Confession: I am a tech writer.


So this week we learned Android was dominating the smartphone market to an extent it never has before. IDC’s figures were quoted everywhere, accompanied with many a catchy headline or turn of phrase. It’s terrible news for Apple. It’s great news for Google. It’s great for Windows too, as Microsoft’s market share has grown so fast!

The figures suggested that Android’s market share had soared past 80%, and Microsoft’s had leaped 156% over last year’s figure. Apple, the seeming Cinderella of the party, had slipped to a tiny-sounding 12.9%. Gosh, how terrible. Via Android Samsung is king and the end of the iPhone is nigh, eh?

Nope.

I didn’t write up this story because it just felt weird to me. The stats I read seemed awkward, and the various headlines people were writing just clanged in my mind. That’s because nearly every statistic in this report is a context-sensitive boobytrap in some way. CNN did a nice job of rounding up how wrongly things went.The facts somehow eclipsed the meaningful context they were set in.

First up, this is one quarter of data that’s been estimated by IDC. It’s also a quarter that immediately preceded the launch of new iPhones—a fact the general public was widely aware of because of a huge amount of reporting. And, stats be damned, you know everyone loves to buy a new iPhone. Quarterly data doesn’t represent a picture of a whole year, unless you talk about it in context, dotting your writing with facts like this.

Secondly Apple actually shipped nearly 7 million more phones this quarter than in last year’s one, by IDC’s figures—that’s a 26% growth in sales over the same three months the year before. Even with the public knowing brand new iPhones were mere weeks away.

Then there’s Microsoft. 156% growth sounds amazing. But 156% of a tiny amount is still a tiny amount. IDC’s data showed Windows phones now had grown to a massive 3.6% of shipped devices in the quarter.Just about one quarter of the number of phones Apple sold, actually.

And then let’s talk Android, which usually means Samsung and assorted hangers-on who are desperately trying to make money but seem to be missing out. Android phone prices have fallen dramatically over the last year, which means even huge sales growth could translate to less than impressive revenue growth (and remember, it’s revenues and how well they are converted into profits that count, not unit sales numbers) or even a slip in profits. And of course tons of Android phones were sold recently. Tens of companies make hundreds of millions of them, each very slightly different from its rivals. Samsung itself makes a ridiculous array of “Galaxy” devices at price ranges from tens of dollars up to over a thousand. Smartphones are also outselling “dumb” phones, and thus likely are selling to users with a wider range of disposable income than before.

And so on and so on and so on. There are many other nuances.

This is not a defense of Apple, nor an attack on Samsung or anyone else making phones (sorry fanboys). It is, however, a cracking example of how tech writing in a huge majority of cases missed the point because it completely and utterly ignores the context of a piece of news or a piece of data. The latter issue, talking about data or statistics in a piece of tech news, is perhaps doubly twisted because I’d say that 90% of statistics are horribly abused in tech writing—something that Charles Arthur has written rather fabulously about.

Context is, I admit, hard. Exactly what context to frame a piece of news in is hard to pin down. It depends on what the news itself feels like in the mind of the writer, the information in the news item itself and more intangible things like the kind of similar or contradictory news that’s been in the public arena recently.

Context can be about a wider awareness of the market a product is aimed at. It can be an awareness of the limitations of geography, or the timing of one event in relation to recent or upcoming news events. In tech writing it can be as simple as working out what a company is actually trying to do when it releases a new product or service, or placing a new “thing” in the context of the overall company strategy.


So perhaps one useful way to read tech writing (until tech writers get better at it themselves, maybe even by using the trick I’m about to describe, or editors get better at not cutting out context-setting details in order to reduce word counts) is to think about what context may be missing from a piece.

The next time someone writes about Apple think about the context of why Apple is selling new iDevice X or Y, and see if that places any of the facts in the article in a different light (why did Apple chose the particular pricing it did?). The next time you read about a development of Google Glass, consider if there’s anything missing in the piece you’re reading about why Google is developing the device so oddly (why is Google missing out on cultural context by only testing it in the US?). The next time you’re reading about a new phone from Samsung, see if the writer mentions if the device has any real chance of making Samsung money or if it’s part of its usual shotgun market-coverage strategy (who is Samsung hoping to sell these phones to?). Oh, and here’s a good one about tangential context: When you next read about some new innovation or revolutionary idea, think about how the end users will feel when they use it, then see if claims of the “revolutionary” nature still apply. And so on. These are just a handful of examples. I’m sure you’ll imagine more.

Confession part two: Writing this has made me realize a few things. I promise to try to be better at including context in my articles, and insisting my editors leave it in place.

[Image via Flickr user Jeff Barton]

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