Technical Writing & Instructional Design: A Convergence

Technical writing and instructional design have long been regarded as separate disciplines. However, they have many overlapping tasks and share a common end goal: to share information in a way that the target audience can understand. 

Instructional design is the creation of educational content using various technologies. Instructional designers develop and deliver learning materials, such as eLearning modules, user guides, tutorial videos, and more. 

Technical writers create content that explains how something works, such as how to use a product or service. Technical writing is mainly focused on clarity and concision. It breaks down the topic, presents items in a logical order, and embraces brevity. 

While technical writing tends to be straightforward and dry, instructional design seeks to engage users with entertaining content. They share common goals and principles—the key difference is in the delivery. Technical writers collect, collate, and present information. Instructional designers break down something complex, streamline correlated tasks into a logical order, and infuse personality into the content. The goals are similar but the routes taken are different.

The Merger of Technical Writing and Instructional Design

As learning products have evolved over time, the relationship between technical writing and instructional design has grown ever closer. I’ve come to believe that there are six levels of evolution in learning products that, when viewed in a historical context, point toward a time in the future when technical writing and instructional design will ultimately converge. The following table shows these six levels.

EvolutionToolsStructureRelationship between TW and ID
Level 1Pens, typesetting, printing pressesScrolls, books, apprenticeships, classesSeparate
Level 2Typewriters, chalkboardsManuals, demonstrations, classesSeparate
Level 3ComputersManuals converted to online help, instructor-led trainingSeparate, but a need for demonstration tools emerged (i.e., RoboDemo becomes Captivate)
Level 4Mobile devices, desktop computersOnline topic-based information, elearning, simulations, gamificationSeparate, topic-based information not fully integrated with learning tools
Level 5Wearable devices, mobile devices, laptop computersVoice-activated learning (Siri/OK Google), YouTubeIntegrated topics with different learning tools and strategies
Level 6Wearable devices, neuro-implants, mobile devicesKnowledge basesA single standard emerges that provides the user with discipline-agnostic knowledge.

Information products are both evolving and becoming more integrated with one another. The lines of separation between technical writing, training materials, and eLearning are getting thinner and more difficult to distinguish. 

We Need to Think Differently about Tech Writing and Training

I believe we are quickly moving past the point where we should be thinking of technical writing and instructional design as two separate fields. Practitioners in both fields should embrace the skills and methodologies of the other. This ensures that technical writers create more reader-focused documentation, while instructional designers can clearly convey all the components of a complex process. 

As the lines continue to blur between the two disciplines, technical writing and instructional design will meld into a single learning product—knowledge.

Meet ProEdit founder Doug Davis.

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