Tech Writers Unite!

rohrschach.gif 

It had been a long standing assumption of mine that anybody threatened by new technology would dig in their heels and fight for the status quo. In the case of 3DVIA Composer, I had believed that our ability to rapidly generate rich content would threaten the traditional technical writer.

I will not belabor the point any further… instead I bring you the voice of David Lance, an experienced technical writer who was recently introduced to 3DVIA Composer. (Full disclosure: David is a tech writer for SolidWorks.)

I suppose there is the assumption that this new technology will render a segment of the technical writer’s realm of responsibility obsolete. But I sincerely doubt that assumption and do not subscribe to it. The more productivity and output afforded by better engineering tools, the greater the need to document the end products. As a technical writer, I often find my role forces engineers and product managers to confront a myriad of postponed final decisions – once they see their creations described haphazardly in an early rough draft of a user’s guide. We writers learn new technology as the first end users (contributing as defacto pre-alpha users), and consequently we often catch the early bugs (contributing to the QA effort). Somewhere along the line, if we are any good, we transfer the information from the realm of the engineer to that of the end user, and make the information readily available and easy to use.

That imperative role falls to us; the ink-stained wretches in the back room of every engineering lab that ever existed, or ever will exist. And we are your 3DVIA end users.

Tools such as video and Flash and 3DVIA (to name only three) present exciting new possibilities – and they absolutely DO and WILL make us more productive. Much more important, however, is that they make us exponentially more capable of delivering quality information to end users. (A motto that is emblazoned over the front door of all of our homes.) But these new tools, and the skill sets required to use them, are just additional gear in our arsenal. As a profession, we tend to adopt skills as the market demands.

(As an aside, technical writers will – en masse – eagerly learn 3DVIA when we see it listed as a standard requirement in technical writing job descriptions posted on Monster.)

The advantages of using 3DVIA for technical illustration are obvious and very exciting (to me at least). I once spent months creating isometric 3D illustrations of a new product line armed only with a prototype, a tape measure, and Corel 9. My time would have been much better spent crafting dozens of excellent books, rather than illustrating a few mediocre ones.

If there is an organized effort to create a library of sample documentation – I would like to participate. Please keep me in mind, and let me know if I can be of assistance. In my opinion, 3DVIA does not need to be sold as much as it needs to be demonstrated. Those demonstrations – if done well and positioned right – will sell the product managers. They, in turn, will begin to require their tech writers to have the 3DVIA skill set.

Don’t discount the writers in this equation. We want to perform our role, and we do so in virtually every major company. Management has their role. Business knowledge owners have theirs. And we tech writers have ours. That model is unlikely to change just because the writing/illustration tools are vastly improved.

Thank you David. I happily stand corrected.

5 comments to Tech Writers Unite!

  • David Lance  says:

    Thanks for posting this Garth. That David Lance sounds like a great guy – and he’s probably very good looking (!)

    As much as I enjoy the astounding podcast video footage on this site (I get it. I get it. You can do great things with 3DVIA), there is still a huge, gapping need to show real-world end users interacting with 3DVIA content.

    The process technical writers follow when designing successful documentation would generally make Stephen Covey proud. First, we begin with the end in mind. Who are we writing for? What information do they need? What tasks must they perform? How will they use the information? Will they perform these tasks while sitting comfortably at a computer workstation, or will they be laying down in a puddle of engine oil under a chassis dripping with muck and grease? Do we want them to memorize the information and then perform the tasks, or do we want to walk them through the procedure step-by-step? Etc.

    Once we understand who the end user is and what they need to do, we then endeavor to help them understand the information. Seek first to understand, Covey teaches, and then to be understood.

    I would like to see this blog show how 3DVIA works in the real world. Perhaps you could show video footage of people with skinned knuckles performing real tasks with information presented using 3DVIA.

    Show how the animations help a technician say, rebuild a carburetor. What about it works? More important, what does not work? Is the dismantling sequence shown in the animation the one that they actually follow? Does the animation show the removal of components and parts that are un-necessary? What is the feedback mechanism to tap into the technician’s expertise? How are the little hints and tips that only they know integrated in? Do the end users perceive this presentation style as condescending? Do they rightfully regard themselves as expert when breaking down and rebuilding a carburetor, and resent someone from the front office showing them a cartoon of how to do it? Are they right?

    In the pre-3DVIA world of your end users, what works for them now? What does not work? Is the system broken? Does it need to be fixed? What do they think?

    I would very much like to hear from some end users about THEIR perceptions of 3DVIA-generated content.

  • David Lance  says:

    After thinking about this for a few days, I have come up with some answers to my own questions. Here are some of the conclusions I’ve drawn:

    SolidWorks enables a design engineer to create a virtual incarnation of a complex design, to modify and perfect it as a virtual embodiment, and only then to build it in reality. Prototyping, refinement, and fine-tuning are performed with relatively low overhead on a virtual model.

    This paradigm now carries over into the act of using procedural manuals and other documentation to perform tasks on complex machines.

    For the sake of conversation, let’s say we want mechanics to become expert at tearing down and rebuilding “Maxitorque ES T300” Mack truck transmissions. According to the specs on http://www.macktrucks.com, there are 13 model types, ranging from 466 to 798 pounds each.

    In the old paradigm, a substantial budget was required to purchase all 13 transmissions and transport them to a warehouse where they were hefted onto workbenches.

    The mechanic trainees travelled to the warehouse. After a significant investment of time and money, they were systematically introduced to the procedure for tearing down and rebuilding each transmission. With their “Certificate of Completion” in hand, each returned to their workshops and gained real expertise by meticulous repetition. After a year or so, a handful would be experts.

    The SolidWorks and 3DVIA paradigm changes this entirely.

    Now, an unlimited number of trainee candidates, with minimal capital outlay, no travel, and no warehouse, can learn these tasks at their own pace. None must take time off work. Tuition is a fraction of what it had been. Best of all, each trainee can immerse themselves in the complexity of each transmission with an interactivity that is better than reality.

    In this scenario, each trainee begins by reading the procedure guide. There is no escaping the need for this document. It has all the ingredients for performing the tasks. It provides all the notes, diagrams and illustrations. It is the recipe that must be followed – to the letter – to successfully remove the 400 tiny springs and 800 tiny ball bearings, and to put them all back in the right order. It can be smeared with grime and other unmentionable grunge, and can lay dog-eared on a table next to piles of greasy socket wrenches and dirty Styrofoam cups of lukewarm coffee. It is the roadmap that even the best navigator must consult from time to time.

    Each trainee must become thoroughly familiar with it. But they no longer depend on it to learn to perform the procedures. For that, they insert a DVD into a computer long before the job begins.

    Like the SolidWorks designer, the trainee interacts with a virtual entity. They swing it around, weightlessly turn it upside down, and study it front and aft. They review the steps for working on it in the traditional procedure guide, and then painstakingly practice them on the virtual entity until they have scaled the learning curve. They spend hours stripping away components as if they were layers of onion skin. They launch a video, watch a trained mechanic perform the tasks on a real-world transmission, and then emulate the steps on their virtual one. They run tutorials and listen as a trainer audibly explains the steps in the procedure guide while performing them on screen. They run drills to perform the tasks on their own virtual models, until they can do them flawlessly.

    If expertise only comes after repetition, each candidate can repeat the sequences hundreds of times. Thousands if they like.

    When they rise from the workstation, they are ready to tear down a real transmission armed only with the procedure guide (as a reference and a reminder), and the expertise they’ve gained from interacting in the virtual environment.

    That is how I see 3DVIA working in the real world.

  • Garth  says:

    David, your vision is becoming a reality. Check out podcast episode #29. link to 3dmojo.com

  • David Lance  says:

    Thanks Garth! That is an amazing start! But like any early draft, it is to be analyzed and improved – right? The things I love about it: Well, the x-ray vision of the engine is truly valuable.

    Until now, only seasoned Volvo engine mechanics could look at this engine and “see” the internal workings with their trained mind’s eye.

    Now beginners can enjoy the same advantage. How will this speed up the transformation from novice to expert?

    I love how the parts float out and disappear after they are removed. I like the style of the presentation. It is very easy to watch. I really like the way the wrench swings up as the Camshaft lines up with marks on the engine block.

    The things I think ought to be improved: Sound. I want to hear a voice explaining things. The stage is set. Add a voiceover. It would be easy to write a single script for this procedure and translate it into multiple languages. It is too brief. It leaves out alot of steps. If the task is to adjust the valves – the creator of the animation should begin at the beginning, and end at the end. Just like the mechanic who will perform the procedure. It needs more detail. What is the torque of those nuts supposed to be? What is the size of the box wrenches? The purpose of the animation is to enable a mechanic to perform this procedure after watching it a few times. So include the most mundane details. Tell them the size of the wrenches. Don’t make them use trial and error. And finally, when showing a box wrench in use, make sure it is right side up. The fewer the skinned knuckles, the better the animation ;-).

    It occurred to me last night that if this gets off the ground, a good SolidWorks project would be to create a virtual Standard/Metric Mechanics Tool Set. (link to ecx.images-amazon.com) I bet Craftsman would just love to see that!

  • Garth  says:

    David, again you are right on the money. Be assured that the sample animation was something done as part of a proof of concept in a couple of hours by a user after some basic training. The fully-detailed procedure is something that, for obvious reasons, cannot be publicly disclosed. I have seen many very impressive 3d documents created by our customers to improve their competitiveness — and understandibly they don’t like to share their secrets with the rest of the world.

    As for sound, this is something that could be added to an AVI that you could export from the software. Our customers don’t request this a lot, because if you are running the sequence live, the environment is not conducive to hearing voice instructions anyway.

    So instead of a simple animation, what you really need is an interactive document. And naturally, this is a place where 3DVIA Composer excels. Take a look at this podcast for a sample. Much more on this topic later. link to 3dmojo.com

    As for tool libraries, there are many of them available in cyberspace. I agree that it would be nice for manufacturers to provide 3D libraries of their tool sets for use, but like any other business they must protect their intellectual property — and giving out 3D models of their products greatly eases reverse engineering efforts. (And yet another area where 3DVIA Composer helps, with the Secure 3D functionality built into 3DVIA Safe. link to 3dmojo.com)

Leave a reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.