By Elizabeth Meyer
Whether it’s our smart phones, smart homes, or supposedly smart business applications, technology is all around us. But when it comes to communicating about tech, it’s easy to get it wrong.
Over the past 10 years, I have helped build, roll out, change, and promote adoption of a variety of tech tools. I’ve supported agency-wide migrations of major systems like Windows and SharePoint and managed crisis communications when a data center power connection melted (no, really), resulting in an enterprise outage for a federal agency.
As a result, I’ve learned a lot about the good, the bad, and the ugly of tech comms. The word “migration” still conjures images of a flock of geese in my head. And if “enterprise” makes you think of Star Trek, you are not alone.
Here are my top five tips to help you avoid these unfortunate word associations AND help you communicate effectively about nearly any technology initiative:
1. If you don’t understand it, you can’t explain it.
Before I put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) for any new tech comms initiative, I try to sit down with the folks who know the system the best and ask them to explain it as if they’re writing “How to Use This for Dummies.” I ask a bajillion questions and I try to wrap my head around features, considerations, risks, and benefits that I may never need to share with my audience. Even if something seems trivial, I want to understand it. Because I know that if I can’t wrap my brain around it, I have absolutely no hope of helping anyone else do so.
Sometimes as a part of this process, I ask the tech team to give me access to the system or platform so that I can test it out myself, see how it works, and flag notifications and directions embedded into the tool that could confuse users. If it’s early enough in the development process, I even recommend clearer, simpler language — and integrate it into my communications plans.
2. Acknowledge that technology can be scary
It’s impossible for 21st-century humans to avoid technology. Even my dad, who may never let go of his old flip phone, can’t run from it. But it’s important to understand why some people might want to. For those of us who are young enough to have come of age during or after the dot-com revolution (anyone remember Netscape?), we have grown and evolved alongside the technologies available to us. Learning to use a new operating system or getting an upgraded phone is just part of life.
But that’s not the case for everyone. Some people may approach technology with an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” mentality. Where we see the opportunity for greater efficiency or improved data analytics, they see frustration trying to use something new when the old version worked just fine, thank you very much. As tech communicators — particularly those who support the federal government — we need to ensure we are sympathetic to this audience segment.
3. Stop calling users “users”
In my very first role doing IT communications for a federal agency, my colleagues informed me that nowhere in my content was I to refer to people who used technology as “users.” Understandably, my reaction was “well how am I supposed to refer to them then?” But I quickly got used to finding creative ways to address and refer to the humans who interact with the technology I’m writing about. Speaking in first person and talking TO users instead of about them always makes it easier. And in the process, I realized that, in the end, no one wants to be thought of as a nameless, faceless “user” anyway.
4. Avoid back-end speak
The problem is that most non-technical people (we won’t call them users!) simply don’t care. They don’t want you to wax poetic about how seamlessly this middleware tool integrates with their organization’s active directory. They don’t want to know about the 17 rounds of testing that went into refining the process flows. And they don’t really want to know why you need a 24-hour outage to migrate (geese!) their information from the old system to the new one.
It’s our job to separate the necessary from the extraneous and just give them what they need to know. In the end, my yardstick is whether I think my mom could read any content once and understand it. If she can, then I’ve done my job. If not, I’ve got work to do.
5. Talk about why a tech tool is good, not just how to use it
Putting yourself in your audience’s shoes and asking, “What’s in it for me?,” is one of the gold standards of good communications. And that’s no different when communicating about technology. But often in tech comms we spend so much time teaching folks HOW to use a tool that we forget to share WHY they should want to. Consider whether there is a direct benefit to the people who have to adopt a new tool (e.g., does it save them time or simplify complex tasks?), or is it an ancillary, indirect benefit? In the long run, if people think a given technology is good, they will embrace it.
So, the next time you find yourself deep in tech comms, I hope you’ll think about these tips and simply remember not to get caught up in the technical details. Instead, focus on the people, who they are, and what they need. It’s the most important thing anyway.