Sunday, 26 October 2008

Documentation standards? Who needs them?

A document called "BS ISO/IEC 26514:2008 Software and systems engineering: Requirements for designers and developers of user documentation" was published in June 2008, and is available from the BSI (though it's quite expensive to buy if you're an individual purchaser). The November 2008 edition of the STC's magazine Intercom focuses on standards in general and this new documentation standard in particular.

Now imagine this scenario: it's the documentation manager's cubicle in the development department of a medium-sized application software company. The VP of software development appears and asks the documentation manager this question: "Do you and your team have everything you need to make sure that our practices and procedures are compliant with the current ISO standard for user documentation?"

For most people involved in developing user documentation, the next scene would involve paramedics trying to resuscitate a documentation manager who had collapsed from shock.

The point I am trying to make with this lame attempt at humour is that with or without ISO standards, many small and medium sized organisations still regard user documentation as at best a marginal activity, or at worst as a necessary evil, and, especially in troubled economic times like these, as a cost centre that can and should be squeezed as much as possible. The idea that user documentation has any intrinsic value to a company, or that it is something important enough to be worthy of an international standard, is quite alien to many businesses.

I suspect that this sort of negative attitude towards user documentation is particularly prevalent here in the UK, where technical communications is hardly taught at all in higher education. (This may be because writing skills are not taught as a specific skill in secondary education in the UK, and instead are regarded as a key skill integrated across the whole curriculum - but that problem deserves a blog article of its own.) In the United States, in contrast, there are dozens of undergraduate and graduate programmes in technical communication, and there is also an expectation, absent from the UK HE sector, that engineering, computing and science undergraduates will all take at least one course in technical writing. But even in the USA, dismissive and derisory opinions of user documentation are still widespread.

I applaud the efforts being made by the STC in the United States to have the occupational designation of technical communicator recognised by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. I hope that here in the UK the ISTC will continue its efforts to ensure similar recognition, even though that means addressing both EU and UK authorities.

I am delighted that this ISO standard has been published, as it is a recognition of the importance of what technical writers do, and it gives added public legitimacy to our profession. In particular, I am pleased with the approach taken by the standard, of endorsing a task-based and user-focused approach to user documentation. This ISO standard could become a significant tool in improving the status of the documentation function in many companies.

Who needs documentation standards? We all do.