If It's Not Broken, Then
Break It

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By Robert Delwood

Lead API Writer

Change is possible but we're going to have to whine a lot.


A few years ago there was an odd situation at airports. There'd be 50 taxis and 50 people and yet both groups would have to wait up to an hour. You'd think the obvious solution was that each person would get directly into a taxi. The problem would be solved in five minutes. Instead, there was a system in place that guaranteed to make everyone wait. Each customer could only get into the first taxi, and everyone else has to wait their turn. In fact, you'd get in trouble if you tried picking your own taxi. I'm not sure what it was designed to do. The net result didn't move efficiently. Even though everone had a vested interest in moving. The customers want to get to where they were going. The taxi drivers wanted fares and come back for more. The airport wanted to clear the congestion. Let's call this system broken. We'll get back to this in a moment.

What Can We Do?

I have always maintained that technical communicators are among the most put upon groups. Specifically, we'll never get the tools we need. In contrast, developers get all the tools they want. Perhaps because they're the very group who can write their own tools, but more likely it's because they're a large enough group that third parties support them. We're neither. Until each writing group has their own developer, we're seemingly stuck in a rut. By tools, I mean both high level and low level ones. High level tools are those applications like MadCap Flare, and Microsoft Word. Low level ones are those tools that would be unique to each writing group, idiomatic to individual writers, but may even be one off tools. It's clear why no business would write something for a single usage. And as for the other tools, we already have Flare so what's the problem? We need more and better tools. So as a group, we have to ask one question: What can we do to get more tools?

It turns out, plenty. We have to learn to make our needs known. We can do this in three ways.

  1. First, if it's not broken, then break it.
    That is, the tools need to do exactly what you want them to do, so any other result you can see as being broken. There is no prefect tool, so this one should be easy. This means to start viewing things critically. Make notes of features that don't work, and keep lists of what you want. Tomorrow when you first open your authoring tool, write down things you don't like about it, no matter how small or trivial. And I know trivial. For example, when I click on Flare, I want an immediate splash screen so I know it's opening. Then, when it does open, I don't want it to barge in as the active application. That makes it intercept whatever I'm typing from another application. When you get ten items, write the company and tell them you want these fixed. Do this even if you think these are unique to you. Chances are it's not. At any rate, it'll be the collective voice that effects change.
  2. Second, ask for new tools.
    In the same way as mentioning existing things that don't work, keep lists of things that don't currently exist but that you'd want them to. These are the tools you need to do your job better. It also includes seeing things in ways no one has thought of before. If you're coming up with a dream list, why not dream? The software manufactures are playing a game predicting want we want when in fact they're shouldn't be predicting at all. We're betting our careers on their tools, so tell them out right what we want.
  3. Finally, advocate your ideas tirelessly.
    Get on forums and write others in your field. Publish articles. Go to conferences and talk to company representatives. Push your ideas and see what the response is. This marketplace of ideas is where concepts get spread, and forged into actionable ideas. Get to be known as That Person who advocates an idea. Through reading this, you probably thought that one person can't change an industry. And perhaps one can't but organize the collective and the companies will respond.


Then again, maybe one person can change an industry. Going back to the taxi story, Garrett Camp cofounded Uber when he noticed a problem in the then current system. The idea is simple: Use cell phones to make cars come to you. Better yet, it's one of those ideas that make you say "I could have done that." It's admirable because they're using resources we all have but in a new way.