Is Content Strategy Replacing Technical Writers?

Scattered papers
Scattered papers
Photo by Brandi Redd on Unsplash

Last week, I attended LavaCon. A content strategy conference with presentations and people from a diverse mix of content strategy and its parent disciplines: technical writing, marketing writing, and UX. It’s an interesting time for the emerging discipline of content strategy and LavaCon reflected the apex of this culmination well.

At Lavacon, many technical writers I talked to thought that “content strategy” was a new word for technical writing. The content strategists from marketing and UX seemed bewildered why many sessions focused on technical writing.

I was caught in the middle, explaining to each why the other was there.

I’ve been in the content strategy field long enough to say, “before there was UX, technical writers were UX,” then, more recently, “before there were UX Content Strategists, technical writers were the UX Content Strategists.” I’ve been advocating for the user since before it was a conversation. And, I’m very glad it’s a conversation now.

My career has been a mix of small companies, large companies, and many in-between. Much of my career I worked at a startup, only to be acquired shortly thereafter by a larger company, into which I had to integrate words, tools, and processes.

I have started or integrated at least 6 technical writing departments, carefully considering the appropriate and most cutting-edge documentation presentation strategy for the product needs. I’ve contributed to countless GUIs (often without being asked for my opinion), error messages, and other aspects of the user experience because, simply put, I care about the user and their experience. Before UX was a thing, I was one of the few people that represented the end-user and saw what they’d see. Over time, the presentation of product documentation for enterprise software has come closer to the presentation of consumer-facing information, in both documentation and products.

Long gone are the days of books and PDF manuals. They were replaced by HTML help. Then help on websites, becoming a series of smaller articles, based on user tasks that were easier to find and digest quickly (look for a future article on this evolution soon). Then, consumer products started becoming so intuitive (thanks, UX!) that “help” was no longer needed. Consumers now expect to never need help to use software. Ever. Think of your favorite gaming or texting app — are you going to look up how to use it? No.

Lest you think this is for consumer software only, the same consumers also use enterprise software. Which means users have a lower tolerance than ever for bad user experiences in enterprise software. No one will be saved in the technical writing takeover by UX. Or will they?

After the 3rd startup I worked for was acquired, I transitioned into a product role at Adobe, working on a tool that created guided tours and in-app help. That’s where I learned about UX content strategy.

When a UX content strategist talked at a meeting, clarifying that UX content strategy is, “designing with words,” it was like a lightbulb went off. I’d been doing this for years!

For years I’d been contributing to the user experience, trying to make things easier for them, not just with documentation, but inside the product, too. And there was now a job just doing that?! I was thrilled.

Many technical writers don’t know that they’ve been doing this for years. Many are very technical and don’t do this at all. It was a thrill to share with them the way the field is changing and morphing into the new content strategy frontier.

Technical writing is still relevant, but becoming more niche. I believe there will always be a place for technical writing for APIs and complex machines (like planes). But, the rest of technical writing will be rendered obsolete by intuitive user experiences, tours, and in-app help that meets users exactly where they are at. These experiences and words must be unified inside a product, outside the product, and reconciled with marketing and other areas to make sure the user’s experience is seamless.

Many technical writers have been fighting uphill battles for years trying to advocate for users and get consistency in words across products and departments. The world finally sees the value. But now it’s called Content Strategy.

Content Strategy Adventures

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