This article is part of the “Write For” series, a collection of writings produced by the University of Central Arkansas Department of Writing to highlight incredible organizations that rely on professional writers. To learn more about Professional Writing and the opportunities it offers graduates, click here.
We have all been guilty of buying a new piece of technology and then simply pitching its accompanying instruction manual into a trash can. A few minutes will pass before panic sets in and beads of perspiration begin pooling on furrowed brows. Anyone who has fished the instructions back out of the trash recognizes the value of professional writers like those working at Acxiom.
Acxiom, a cutting-edge technology company with offices in Conway, Ark., and Little Rock, Ark., uses a team of professional writers to ensure that customers are able to easily use its software products. Acxiom’s 12 production-engineering writers are embedded within teams of programmers who are developing the company’s digital wares.
The writers contribute to the projects in a number of ways. One of their biggest responsibilities is to create a variety of user guides, from printable PDF documents to informational videos. Anna Osborn, team leader of the company’s production engineering technical writing team, said the guides have a very specific tone and purpose. “We write from the user perspective: ‘How do I accomplish this goal?'” she said.
Acxiom’s writers get a little bit of help when it comes to understanding this user perspective; other members of a project team create user personas and stories that identify what must be addressed in a particular guide.
User personas are profiles of fictional characters representing the real people who will use a product. For instance, writers would take two different approaches when writing software guides for “Debbie,” a 60-year-old woman who rarely uses a computer, and “Joe,” a 20-year-old who uses a program similar to Acxiom’s every day at work. User stories are fictional scenarios representing users’ actual goals for a piece of software. The basic sentence structure for a user story is, “As a user, I need to accomplish (this goal).” Through user personas and stories, Acxiom’s professional writers can visualize their readers and what information should be included in a user guide.
Acxiom’s writers play another crucial role in the production process through user advocacy. Taking on the role of a user advocate, a writer will test a new product early in the development process to identify issues that users might encounter. Osborn said this role is important, because while programmers know how they designed a program to work, it doesn’t always go as planned for the user.
Osborn said Acxiom’s writers need large toolboxes to complete their jobs. On any given day, a writer may use Robohelp or AuthorIt (content management systems that help the company store and share project information), Adobe Acrobat Pro (PDF-editing software), Snagit (a program that lets writers capture computer screenshots) and Camtasia (a program that lets writers capture and edit video footage of a computer screen). Writers are also expected to be familiar with Microsoft Word and Powerpoint.
That list of tools may seem intimidating, but Osborn said most of Acxiom’s writers master them on the job. She suggested that professional writers who want to start learning how to use the programs above should take advantage of free trials. Osborn said the free-trial approach is a cost-effective way to show potential employers that you have initiative and a willingness to learn.
If you enjoy exploring new computer programs and mastering digital tools in the interest of helping others, you might enjoy working for a company like Acxiom. Professional writers who can step into the shoes of users, identify possible software issues and then write helpful user manuals can find their place among co-workers building tomorrow’s technological masterpieces.