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November 1999


Kiley Amundson

Susan Beelman

Philip Dickey

Mary Donnelly

Michelle Maack-Friederichs

Brandi Mason

Cory Pedersen



Feature Articles

Getting Ahead of the Game

Designing User Friendly Websites

Keeping with the Times in Technical Communication

What is Technical Communication?

Researching Companies


In Every Issue

Letter from the Editor


Bulletin Board

Meet the Staff





Getting Ahead of the Game

by Cory Pedersen

It is no secret that the field of technical communication is exploding. With the expansion of technology into every avenue of our daily lives, both at work and at home, the need for clear, concise, and accurate documentation is intensifying. A growing number of high schools and universities across the country are beginning to realize the importance of training students to effectively create and document technical information. As students of technical communication, what can you do to better prepare yourself for a field that seems to change every day?

First, keep in mind that technical communicators do a lot of different things, and a lot of them do not involve writing. Technical communicators plan documentation projects, interview people, edit the work of other writers, learn new things constantly, and oh yeah, I almost forgot, they also write occasionally.

Good, efficient technical communicators appear to possess three common characteristics:

  • Organized-Many projects demand taking an overwhelming amount of information and organizing it, then determining what to throw and what to use. Other projects involve searching for information, then organizing and presenting it.
  • Informative-Writers must remember they are translators between those with the information and those who need the information. The needs of the audience must remain paramount.
  • Good people skills-In many companies, teamwork rates as high as job skills. Group work while in school can help tune your people skills, so don't take it lightly.
  • Interviewing skills- Up and coming writers need to be able to effectively extract information from subject matter experts.

Documentation quality can be greatly improved if the importance of getting detailed information from engineers, developers, and programmers is understood. But to do this, you need to know what questions to ask. While in school, you can improve your chances of finding work by familiarizing yourself with as many word processing and desktop publishing applications as possible. Unfortunately, some employers are narrow-minded and consider only those applicants who already have experience with a specific application. Students can improve their marketability by becoming familiar with page layout, graphics, presentation and help-authoring software packages.

Popular applications at this time include:

  • FrameMaker
  • Corel suite
  • HTML
  • RoboHelp
  • Microsoft Power Point.

You do not need to be experts in these applications by any means, just being familiar with them will increase your market value. You can better learn these programs by doing things like writing course outlines, writing document style guides, and rewriting existing documents.

Look at bad documentation and then rewrite them using the techniques and methods that you learn in your classes. This kind of work is great for portfolios. However, do not neglect the importance of knowing your audience and understanding the scope of the document you are about to write before you write it.

In order to create effective technical communication, you must first have a grip on what it is that your audience wants and expects from you. Keep in mind that not all of your readers are going to have the same level of knowledge that you do. Just because you understand how something works doesn't mean that your audience will.

These are just a few suggestions to help better prepare you for the field of technical communication. By no means are they complete; there are countless other aspects to becoming good communicators. However, the ideas discussed here seem to be common to businesses today. Practice and learn them. Although doing things like rewriting documents may seem tedious and boring, you will find yourself becoming more in tune with how effective documents should look and sound.

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Designing User Friendly Websites

by Mary Donnelly

A user-friendly Website is one that visitors can easily access. It is very important for users to be able to easily access and navigate a site. Usability measures the quality of the experience the user has while interacting with a piece of documentation. When testing a Website for usability, one vital question must be raised: Can people use the site effectively? There are many characteristics of user-friendly Websites. A few are listed below:


Typography is one of the most important ingredients for a user-friendly Website. The size and style of the font should be easy to read. Pay special attention to line lengths to ensure that they do not get too long. If a line is too long, the document will be hard to read which will make it very easy for readers to skip over information. Fonts placed in italics should be avoided because again, this style is very difficult to read. There are many effective and appropriate font styles already set up by default on most computers. Several would work nicely when creating a site.

The format and layout of a Website should be simple. Use upper and lower case letters, avoid blinking and underlined text, and avoid words that are in all capital letters. Nothing will turn readers off more than text that is placed strictly in capital letters, words that are in all caps symbolize yelling on the online medium. How many users are going to want to explore a site that is yelling at them? Finally, maintain a consistent look and feel throughout every link or page in the document. Consistency is very important when designing a page. If the same colors, fonts and styles are used throughout the page, the designer's credibility will rank high.


Graphics play a vital role in emphasizing Websites. They are fun to look at and give readers a break from reading text. However, it is important to not overuse graphics. Be aware of the time that it takes for graphics to load. A rule of thumb is graphics should take less than 10 seconds to load. If they take longer, it is certain that people will lose interest and move on to another site. Keep the number of graphics to a minimum. It cannot be said enough that the more graphics a page has, the longer it takes for the page to load. Use graphics that are relevant to the theme of the Website and help emphasize the main points.


As with graphics and fonts on Websites, color must also be pleasing to view. It is very important not to splatter Websites with color. Use color sparingly and accordingly. Not all users have high-end monitors that support every color combination. Keep this in mind and use basic colors that convert from machine to machine. There are endless color combinations that can be used. Do some research and user-testing to find out which colors work best together.

Search Engines

Search engines are a great way to ensure usability. They dramatically cut down the time it takes users to find information. Visitors will not be forced to search the site blindly because the engine allows them to type in what they are searching and displays the results or takes them directly to the information. Websites should be easy to use. The most successful Websites on the Internet ingeniously combine typography, graphics, color, and search engines.

Research and testing is also a key to success. Spend some time analyzing users to find out what they need to know and then put energy into designing the best possible way to deliver that information to them.

For more information on Website design issues, check out:

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Keeping with the Times in

Technical Communication

by Brandi Mason

The technical communication field is constantly changing. Each year new discoveries are made that impact the way technical communicators perform their jobs. College students majoring in technical communication learn the current trends in the field and what skills employers expect. As technical communicators, it is imperative to keep current on the changes in technical communication in order to produce the most effective and highest quality documentation possible.

There are many ways technical communicators can stay current on the changes in the technical communication field. A few are listed below:

  • Publications Subscribe to various technical publications.
  • Numerous magazines, journals, and newsletters are written especially for technical communicators.
  • Technical communicators write articles for publications, which focus on research findings and observations that directly impact the technical communication field.

Although it is not required to subscribe to all technical communication publications, it is recommended to subscribe to at least one journal and one magazine. Journals typically feature longer articles about findings while magazines contain shorter articles about special interests; both provide a wealth of information that technical communicators will find useful.

Online Resources

Get online. The Internet has become the number one source for information including resources about technical communication. Although it may take some time to find the most useful technical communication sites, it is well worth the time. Once the most useful sites are found, bookmark them, and visit them frequently as the information contained within them is often updated.

Listservs provide an interactive way for technical communicators to review and analyze new ideas, discuss old trends and argue about current practices. Subscribers to the listserv do not have to be active in submitting questions or making statements as most subscribers prefer to read the comments posted by other subscribers. Listservs keep people current about topics and ideas that are presently being considered; however, do not expect to find definite answers for many of the people actively involved in listservs rarely agree on anything.

Professional Organizations

Become a member of a professional technical communication organization such as the Society for Technical Communication (STC). STC provides members with current information and trends in technical communication. It does this by holdingmeetings at local and regional levels and annual national conferences. The organization also provides its members with a monthly magazine and a quarterly journal that contain information for technical communicators and special interest groups.

For more information about STC or becoming a member, visit www.stc.org.


Enroll in courses at local community centers, community colleges, and universities. Although these establishments may not offer courses directly related to the study of technical communication, many of them offer courses in computer software, visual design, graphic layout, and practical grammar. If any of these establishments offer courses in technical communication, take a one and learn about the new trends and styles that are being taught and discuss why the old styles are no longer practiced.

Taking additional courses provides an opportunity to improve writing skills while using the latest computer technology. Technical communication is an emerging field that is constantly changing. With all the changes in styles and trends, it is important to be informed and to keep up-to-date.

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What is Technical Communication?

by Kiley Amundson

Technical communication connects the creator and the user of technology. Technical communication relies on understanding the components of a document and translating those parts in a clear and concise way. The following are some aspects of what is involved in the field of technical communication.

Document Design

Technical communicators are responsible for document design. Document design uses desktop publishing programs to give attention to textual design along with graphical elements. Many of the textual aspects such as spacing, headings, and tabs are taken for granted in documents. Users assume that the standard layout of a document is already in the best or most efficient format possible. However, by changing a block of lengthy text to a simplified list, the same information is suddenly more understandable and easier to read. It is important for the technical communicator to analyze these elements and decide which are beneficial to the overall document to be helpful for the intended users.

Graphics and Visuals

Graphic illustrations such as charts, graphs, and tables are important elements of technical communication. They give documents the ability to visually display data figures and messages to a particular audience. There are a variety of purposes for using graphics in technical documents: They enhance reader comprehension, serve as a quick reference, and add appeal and credibility.

Defining Terms

When technical communicators conduct research to write documents, they must consider many elements. One of the most important is language and term definition. Since language differs from culture to culture, it is important to define any words that do not translate. Technical communicators must define all terms that may be unfamiliar to users. As technology advances, so does the field of technical communication. However, document design, graphics and visuals, and defining terms will remain the responsibility of the technical communicator.

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Researching Companies

by Susan Beelman

Looking for your first job is not easy. You can help yourself by researching companies one or two years before graduating. Graduates often ask, "Where do I begin my search?" and "What kind of information do I look for when researching a business?"

Focus on researching:

  • company history
  • reputation
  • financial worth
  • location, policies
  • benefits
  • treatment of employees
  • employee satisfaction.

The best places to look for answers are the following:

  • college career development center
  • college and public libraries
  • Internet
  • the company itself

College career development centers carry pamphlets with general company information such as:

  • company subsidiaries
  • departments within a company or division
  • possibly a company mission statement

The Internet can also be used to find and apply for jobs. Company Websites often contain job openings, benefits, location, job requirements, and a brief company history. University and public libraries can provide a wealth of information. Magazines and newspapers can be searched for up-to-date company information such as:

  • company reputation
  • how they treat their employees
  • new products
  • statistics on the best companies to work for and why

Information on financial worth and company policies can be difficult to find especially when the company is not publicly known. The following resources contain this information:

  • The Minnesota Business Directory 1998-1999
  • Corporate Report Fact Book 1999 Edition Researching a company is a good way to know whether or not the company would be a good fit.

The suggestions listed here should put you on the right track.

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Letter from the Editor

by Cory Pedersen and Brandi Mason


Welcome to another year of Techniques. This year we are proud to welcome several new faces to the Techniques staff. Michelle Maack-Friederichs will be taking over for Dr. Kathy Hurley as the Techniques Faculty Advisor. Dr. Hurley is on sabbatical this year.


Other additions include Kiley Amundson and Mary Donnelly. Kiley and Mary will be taking on the roles of Techniques online editors and will be responsible for maintaining the Techniques Website. We will keep you posted on the status of our site and release the web address in an upcoming issue. Susan Beelman will be the layout editor this year. She will be designing every issue of Techniques. Philip Dickey will be joining the staff as copyeditor. Philip is in his third year of the technical communication program at Minnesota State University and will provide a lot of talent and enthusiasm to the staff.


Everyone on this year's staff is looking forward to continuing the tradition of bringing our audience up-to-date on technical communication issues and trends; however, we need your help. This year, we would like to see Techniques become more of a reader-driven newsletter. If you have any suggestions or topics that you would like to see covered in future issues, please feel free to e-mail either one of the editors-in-chief.


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FrontPage 2000

by Mary Donnelly and Kiley Amundson


Microsoft recently released its newest Website authoring tool: FrontPage 2000. The software package combines usability with innovated tools, which allows it to be easily used with other Microsoft products.

FrontPage2000 contains new and improved features to make Webpage design easier. These features include 60 different design themes that can be altered to the user's needs. Movement and interest is easily brought to the page through animation effects that are provided by dynamic hypertext markup language (DHTML). The color selector allows users to customize themes by applying pre-set color schemes or by choosing coordinated colors from a color wheel.

FrontPage also allows users to work with existing Web pages and will not modify the existing code. One feature that FrontPage has for users who are learning HTML is tool tips that reveal a complete tag description when the mouse is hovering over a tag.

Websites can be easily managed with the following views:

  • page, folder

  • reports

  • navigation

  • hyperlink

  • task.

Various pre-built summary reports such as broken hyperlinks, slow pages, and unlinked pages help troubleshoot any problems. The software allows users to select browsers that their Webpage will work best with. It also restricts features that will not work with selections.

For more information on FrontPage 2000 visit Microsoft's Website at http://www.microsoft.com.



by Sue Beelman



This site will help those who wish to start researching prospective companies. The site focuses on providing information about numerous companies around the nation. It also provides insight to entrepreneurship, foreign trade, investments and patents. There are links that give free access to annual reports filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission from 1994 to present.



Monster.com is a site that will help anyone searching for a job, researching a company or looking for a place to store a resume online. It also has a chat room with scheduled times and topics for those with employment related issues. Monster.com is also helpful for employers who want to post jobs complete with a description and location.



PALS is a part of the southern regional library system. Search PALS will lead to business indexes and company profiles. Through business indexes you can search for specific business magazines and newspaper articles, whereas company profiles will give descriptions of particular companies.


Technical Communication Situations and Strategies

by Brandi Mason


Technical communication is evolving into more than communicating technical concepts to a non-technical audience: It now incorporates page design, visuals, and Webpage development. With new responsibilities, technical communicators are faced with new situations that require new strategies.


Mike Markel's book, Technical Communication: Situations and Strategies, discusses a technical communicator's primary responsibilities as analyzing audience; conducting research, both primary and secondary; and writing the document. In addition to discussing the basics of technical communication, Markel also discusses the new responsibilities technical communicators must be prepared to perform. These include using electronic tools such as computers, creating Web pages, and choosing effective graphics.

All of these topics require a separate book to fully develop the concepts behind them, but this book introduces a variety of topics that technical communicators must master to be effective. The book provides novice technical communicators with basic definitions used in the field along with ethical concerns to consider. It also provides experienced technical communicators with new concepts and ideas in the field that are being explored. Technical Communication: Situations and Strategies also includes appendices that could be used as a reference handbook for current or future technical communicators.


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Bulletin Board


1999 International Competition Winners Announced!

The winners of the 1999 STC international art, publications, video, and online communication competitions have been posted on the Society Website. From the homepage at www.stc-va.org, select "Professional Development" from the sidebar. Then select "Competitions," and finally "Competition Winners for 1998-99."


New Student Chapter Joins STC!

The STC board of directors has approved the formation of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire (WEC) student chapter. WEC is a member of STC's region 6, and currently has 11 members. The student chapter advisor is Dennis G. Jerz. Welcome aboard!


STC Membership at a Glance

Numbers as of August 31, 1999:

  • Total Members: 21,733

  • Members residing in the U.S.: 19,078
    Members residing in Canada: 1,793

  • Members residing elsewhere: 862

  • Total Chapters: 144 *

*Includes 30 student chapters
**Information for Announcements was provided by the September 1999 issue of Tieline, the STC leaders' newsletter: Volume XII, No. 7.


Notes from Region 6 Director/Sponsor Susan Jensen...

The competitions for 1999-2000 have begun! Listed below are the different competitions that will be judged for this year. Competition rules and criteria are listed on the STC Website:


1. Frank R. Smith Outstanding Journal Article Award
2. International Online Communication, Technical Art and Technical Publications Competition
3. International Science and Engineering Fair Technical Communication Competition
4. International Student Technical Writing Competition
5. International Technical Video Competition
6. STC Newsletter Competition
7. STC Public Relations Competition


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Meet the Staff


Michelle Maack-Friederichs


Michelle Maack-Friederichs teaches technical communication courses at Minnesota State University, Mankato and is the current Techniques faculty advisor.


Her professional and academic background includes writing, teaching, and administration. Ms. Friederichs' technical communication background includes writing policies and procedures, institutional self-studies, training materials, brochures, and newsletters and presenting at corporate and academic conferences.


Her teaching experience includes undergraduate and graduate courses in technical communication, research methods, technology in curriculum, multicultural issues, desktop publishing, and English composition. Ms. Friederichs holds an MA in English with a concentration in technical communication from MSU and a BA in English from the College of St. Benedict. She is finishing her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership. She is a former dean of instructional programs and has taught at St. Mary's School of Graduate Studies, Concordia University of St. Paul, and at Rasmussen College.


She enjoys teaching at MSU and looks forward to meeting and interacting with students. For leisure, Ms. Friederichs enjoys hiking, running, and researching.


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Last Updated: 10/20/2005