See the source imageIt’s not every day that you get to experience an earthquake, and I’ve had the misfortune of experiencing two, both times in the building I work. The last one, with an epicenter in Virginia, shook our entire floor for several seconds.

At first I thought we were expendable employees since no one came around to evacuate our floor. It turns out that remaining in the building was the safest action, as most injuries are caused by falling debris when leaving a building. Many workers were therefore wrongly evacuated from their workplaces. People need to re-read the “disaster” chapter of their office safety guides.

Thankfully, this last earthquake caused minimal damage and no deaths, but many others have been terrible killers. The 2010 Haitian earthquake killed over 300,000 people. The world record goes to China, where an earthquake in 1556 claimed a staggering 830,000 lives.

Note that earthquakes don’t actually kill people – the collapsing buildings do. This explains why there were so many deaths in Haiti, because many of the buildings were very poorly built, since Haiti itself is very poor.

Buildings simply aren’t natural – they are man-made. When you combine the natural with the unnatural, you naturally run into problems. Earthquakes occurring in non-developed areas do not wreak the same level of destruction as in developed areas. Mountains and trees, being part of nature, usually remain intact.

One way to build safer buildings, therefore, is to look to nature. Just as most trees sway but don’t collapse in a quake, newer buildings are designed to sway when the ground shakes. By emulating nature rather than fighting it, lives are saved.

It requires a great deal of money, time, testing and study to copy nature. This is a general principle of all design. Making the unnatural natural does not come naturally, or cheap. Software that converts spoken words to text is a good example. Great strides have been made in speech-to-text applications, but they are still not 100% correct.

A more extreme example is replacement limbs. Even today, it is difficult to create artificial limbs that have the same look and feel of the original parts. It is the supreme challenge to make the logical biological. The day may come when a replacement arm feels no different than the arm it replaces – I would give my right arm to be the inventor.

Technical communication also attempts to make the unnatural natural. It is the process of helping a person interact with something unnatural (a man-made product, service or thing) using something unnatural (a man-made document) in such a way that they can understand and use this manufactured thing in a natural way.

Therefore, the hardest things for a technical communicator to do are:

  • describe something using natural language in a way that a user can easily understand
  • encapsulate and package this information within a form that a user can use with minimal effort

Documentation should be like a glass bowl displaying only its pure contents. If the user can “see” your document, it blocks the view of the contents, frustrating the user. Similarly, if the user has to struggle to find or understand the relevant information, then the guide becomes unnatural, and is no longer a guide, but a wall.

The most well-design documents don’t appear designed – they simply work in a way that does not conflict with the human user. Now, it would certainly be easier to design documentation if we were all robots, but then our jobs wouldn’t be as fun, would they?

Technical communication, therefore, is the process of making the unnatural natural. A successful document is one that makes the understanding and use of a product, quite literally, “second nature”.