Norms and standards for technical documentation – where to look

Published: 2020-09-23 Updated: 2022-08-23

Technical writers must be able to handle the wide range of tasks involved in creating a document. Not only do operating instructions need to be understandable, they must also be easily accessible, ensure safe use of the product and, ultimately, even look appealing. But where can technical writers look for assistance? Some good starting points include the IEC/IEEE 82079-1.2019 standard, the tekom guideline “Regelbasiertes Schreiben” (Rule-based writing) or the more safety-focused ANSI Z535.6. What do these standards do and how do they help with the authoring process?

Norms and standards for technical documentation – where to look

IEC/IEEE 82079-1 standard

The IEC/IEEE 82079-1 standard “Preparation of information for use (instructions for use) of products” is a brief all-rounder for technical writing. This standard addresses several relevant points that every technical writing team will need to think about sooner or later. It covers three aspects of document creation in greater detail: the purpose, quality and the creation process of an information product.

This standard helps you to plan and design your information management process and helps you to remember key questions. Important content for product information is also listed. Depending on the product in question, not all of these may apply. The standard also gives tips on how to structure and organize content and select media for the information product. The new, 2019 edition also covers digital output formats and it now also looks at the skills a technical writer should bring to the table.

tekom guideline “Regelbasiertes Schreiben – Deutsch für die Technische Kommunikation” (Rule-based writing – German for technical communication)

IEC/IEEE 82079.1 describes the framework and basic principles needed for good technical documentation. If you are looking for something more specific, on text creation for example, then the tekom guideline “Regelbasiertes Schreiben” (Rule-based writing) is a better option. This guideline covers everything you need to know about text for technical documentation. It begins with document structure and comprehension tools, such as cross-references and index entries before moving on to aspects such as sentence structure, choice of words and placement of commas, providing technical writers with a host of rules designed to make their day-to-day work easier. The tekom guideline also offers tips and information on saving space and writing translation-friendly content.

Many technical writing teams use this guideline or extracts from it for their style guide (of course it is not a replacement for an internal style guide). The examples used to illustrate each rule and the little ‘decision-making aids’ provide practical guidance. It is also useful for quickly looking up the answer to a question such as ‘where should this comma go?’.

ANSI Z535.6 standard

The ANSI Z535.6 standard provides a sound basis on the topic of safety and warnings. As an American standard it is mainly used ‘for the special requirements of the US market’ to ensure legal compliance. But there are also some takeaways for Europe too. (Some aspects have already been incorporated into the new edition of IEC/IEEE 82079.1).

This standard also regulates the division of warnings into ‘Danger’, ‘Warning’, ‘Caution’ and ‘Notice’ as well as their colours, for example. And it addresses the content of these warnings: the signal word, the type of danger, potential consequences and how to avoid the danger.

What else is out there?

National laws on product safety, product liability and occupational safety also play a role. There are also a number of standards and directives that may be applied depending on the product in question.

For machines, there is obviously the Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC. Not only does this directive cover the requirements for the design and placing on the market of the machine, it also includes the requirements for the machine’s technical documentation. For example, the documents that must be provided with the machine and what must be included in the operating instructions.

There are also now standards for software products, which provide guidance to technical writers, such as the ISO/IEC/IEEE 26511 – 26515 series of standards or ISO/IEC 18019:2004. These standards are aimed specifically at software and cover the planning and approach, the creation process and usability tests or working in an agile environment.

There are also other standards and directives which apply to other areas and are relevant to technical documentation, such as the Electromagnetic Compatibility Directive or standards and laws for medical devices.

Do standards have to be applied?

Yes and no. There is no obligation to use standards. However, in case of liability it is good to be able to show that standards were applied – unless there were good reasons not to do so. In the majority of cases, technical writers should apply the standard in a manner that is appropriate to their specific case and not ‘by hook or by crook’.

There are a number of directives, standards and guidelines that can help technical writers with their work. Comments on these documents often provide a good starting point for getting an overview and potentially even making a decision to purchase. Knowledge of the relevant norms and standards gives writers confidence in their day-to-day work and helps them to create better information products.

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