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Technical communicators often write the documents that support the launch of a product into the marketplace. They work with members of a new product development team, all of whom have specific responsibilities. Understanding the new product development process and the needs of the team members increases the likelihood that the team’s technical communicators will play a significant role in the new product’s success.
What should the technical communicator keep in mind?
New product development follows a process
As products are created, they go through a new product development life cycle. The names of the phases may vary from one industry to another or from one company to another. Typically, the phases consist of initiating and planning, designing and developing, testing, selling, servicing, maintaining, and closing. At some point, the new product may be enhanced, which may start the product development cycle anew, or it may be discontinued. Often the developing new product must meet specific criteria and pass a gate before advancing to the next phase.
Team members are busy
Members of the new product development team have much to do to move the product toward launch. Let’s assume the new product is a robot for home use – a kind of butler that can get into every nook and cranny in your home. Rob, the robot, can extend his arm as high as needed and retrieve goods from the top shelf or bend down and pick up items that are stored at floor level. Engineers are busy designing all of Rob’s systems – those that are mechanical, electrical, computerized, and more. Artists are busy giving Rob his good looks. Team members who will sell Rob are learning as much as possible about Rob’s features and benefits. Those responsible for providing service to customers who purchase Rob are busy identifying and purchasing parts that might need to be replaced. All have specific responsibilities to meet the new product launch date.
Technical communicators can add value throughout the product life cycle
Writing documents is often a low priority for busy team members. Here’s where the technical communicator can find opportunities and add value. During the initiate and plan phase of new product development, the project manager and team members are defining the vision and concepts, studying the market, assessing potential profitability, and considering product specifications and requirements. The technical communicator who is involved early in the process can work with team members to craft these topics into the project plan.
While Rob, the robotic butler, is under design and development, there are additional documents required for building a prototype, purchasing components, and integrating systems. These become the starting points for documenting policies, procedures, work orders, and scope changes. Here, too, the technical communicator can become instrumental in defining and developing a myriad of documents.
While Rob undergoes a series of rigorous tests, the technical communicator, with input from the engineers and other specialists, prepares a written test plan with performance specifications, regulatory requirements, and forms for capturing defects. The technical communicator uses the test results to write reports, which become part of Rob’s history file.
The time to sell Rob in the marketplace arrives. Consumer opinion is shaped by the overall product, the launch material displayed at a trade show, the press release in the newspaper, the advertising in a magazine, the description on the corporate Web site, the user guides, and more. With the expertise of skilled communicators, Rob is likely to stand tall, among competing products.
When Rob is in the hands of the consumer, product owners will likely have questions and Rob will require service. Why aren’t Rob’s eyes lighting up? Why is he is tripping over cords? To respond appropriately, the service providers refer to a set of documents, such as a theory of operations guide, installation instructions, procedures to do adjustments and replacements, diagnostic and troubleshooting guides, and more. The technical communicator writes the publications that the service providers can use when responding to calls for help and making site visits.
During the maintaining and closing phases of development, the technical communicator documents lessons learned, consumer feedback, and corrections to known problems. She stores all project files into a project archive, making them available for the next version of Rob.
Play your part well
Technical communicators have the language and publishing skills to write the many product life cycle documents that other team members have neither the skill nor the desire to write. Freeing up the engineer, the programmer, the project manager, and other product experts from writing allows them to spend their time doing what they do best. Effective communicators can play a key role in launching new products, like Rob, into the marketplace.
(This article originally appeared in Writer Online)
Judith Ellison Shenouda earned a Master of Arts degree in Literacy Journalism from S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. She completed additional courses in curriculum design and development, group dynamics, information studies, publication management and project management; and has New York State Certification to teach Secondary English. She is owner of Shenouda Associates Inc., a business that eases communication through its publication services, which include writing the publications that support new product development. An experienced educator and accomplished communicator, she would be pleased to speak to your organization on topics related to starting a business and keeping it going; creating effective technical, business, and marketing communications; and managing the projects in your professional and personal life.