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Most technical writers agree that variants are one of the biggest challenges in technical authoring. But where do these variants actually come from and why do they seem to be increasing in number as time goes by? Allow us to shed some light on the variant jungle.
There are essentially three types of variant in technical documentation: unwanted variants, product-related variants, and communicative variants. So what do they all mean? Unwanted variants emerge quite naturally as time goes by, if we don’t take steps to prevent them. Different authors express the same facts in different ways. There is no right or wrong here. Two different ways of expressing the same thing can be equally as good, one is simply different from the other. The same also applies if it is always the same writer working on the documentation. One day we say it one way, another day we say it another way. And that’s how a variant can emerge.
Naturally, over time, these variants pose bigger and bigger problems. They confuse people using instructions, they cause unnecessary maintenance work, and drive up translation costs. Technical writing departments therefore try to get to grips with this unwanted variation through standardization and modularization. Component Content Management Systems (CCMS) are the solution of choice here to make modular instructions easy to deal with.
The second form of variation is product-related variation. In today’s commercial reality, normality means having a wide range of models at our disposal. Each model is then available in a range of versions. Products can often even be configured individually. In the automobile industry, it is often the case that no two identically configured vehicles would ever actually meet because there are simply too many configuration options.
This high number of product variants naturally also has consequences, as each product functionality and each configuration also needs to be covered in the documentation. Many customers expect that the documentation will exactly match the product they have purchased. Conversely, this also means that the different product variants cannot be covered in one generic document. Close analysis of the configuration options makes it possible to find out which variants are mutually exclusive (e.g., an AdBlue tank for gasoline-powered vehicles). Nevertheless, there remains a large number of variants to manage for the documentation. Therefore ultimately, for every product sold, a separate set of instructions has to be written.
The third and most complex source of documentation variants is the communicative variants. There are different authoring reasons for this. For one thing, instructions for the same product differ, depending on who they are intended for. Care instructions for an end user look different from maintenance instructions for service engineers. Instructions also differ depending on the product life-cycle for which they are intended: transport instructions, installation instructions, installation manuals, operating instructions, disposal instructions (and many more). In addition, exporting companies need each of these variants translating into the relevant target languages. This form of variation is often referred to in technical authoring as “dimensions”. Incidentally, it often isn’t enough to translate the documentation into just one language. For one thing, there can also be target language variants (e.g., British English and American English). There can also be different conventions and technical standards in target markets (e.g., different plugs in English-speaking countries), that need to be considered in the instructions. And as if that were not enough, instructions are naturally also produced for different forms of media (print, Internet, mobile applications, etc.).
As you can see, there are more than enough variants in documentation. Last but not least, there is one more thing we’d like to mention that ultimately causes this huge range of variants to explode: each reason for one variant multiplies with all the other variants. The number of variants therefore increases exponentially. Let’s take a small example to illustrate this. Take a company that manufactures a product for a target group in two target markets. This means there are two manual variants (e.g., German and English). If the same company produces two products for two target groups and three target markets, already the requirement jumps to 12 documentation variants. If everything is now printed and made available online, the number increases to 24, and so it goes on.
Your head may now be spinning with all the various options and multitude of variations. We can only say: “Welcome to the wonderful world of technical authoring!”. Yet it is possible to somehow manage the various variants – at the end of the day, we are technical writers, not superheroes. We’ll show you how in one of our future blog posts.