Technical Writing & Instructional Design: A Convergence

Technical writing and instructional design have long been regarded as separate disciplines. However, there are many technical writers and many instructional designers doing overlapping tasks and covering a gamut of sub-specialties. Both seek a common end-result—a learning product that explains how to use a thing, how to do a job, how to build a widget, and so on.

Realization Background

I realized the similarities between technical writers and instructional designers through an unlikely series of events. Recently, I had the pleasure of teaching a two-day class to a group of State of Colorado employees. The first day of the course presented information on technical writing best practices, and the second day covered best practices for instructional design. Since it’s quite impossible to properly and fully teach both these areas in just two days, I was forced to move away from details and toward generalities. When looking at the subject matter through the lens of generality, the commonalities of the two topics were striking. This has transformed my thinking about our industries.

The Merger of Technical Writing and Instructional Design

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.

As information products are evolving, they are also becoming more integrated with one another. And at some point, it will be difficult or impossible to distinguish technical writing from training materials or elearning.

Technology Trends

This same convergence is happening with technology in general. For example, when the iPhone was first introduced, it was a telephone, messaging/email platform, camera, and music player. Since that time, through the apps that reside on it, the iPhone has become integrated with our security alarms, televisions, automobiles, and so forth. Eventually, smartphones will become difficult to differentiate from these other devices. The telephone will be viewed as symbiotic with many other devices. For example, if you can use your iPhone as a remote control for your TV, and you can watch TV programs on the iPhone, then you can effectively argue that the iPhone has actually now become a TV.

Similarly, let’s say that you’ve created a procedure and published it in a Wiki. That procedure contains text-based information as well as a video demonstrating how to operate a chainsaw. Has that procedural information (formerly viewed as technical writing) now actually become a form of elearning?

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, as information products continuously move in the direction of knowledge bases, and away from technical documents, slide decks, and elearning.

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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