Getting Started as a Technical Writer in China

Writer’s Note

Hi, my dear readers. I’m sorry that I was unable to update this blog as often as I should. Last year, I started this blog to keep track of what I’ve learned and how I’ve developed in technical writing. One year later, I was eventually hired as a technical writer. I’m very excited at the opportunity to put what my unique skill set into real-world projects. That’s being said, I’m going to write more posts that are closely related to work practices in the future.

Education Background 

I’m an English major with a master degree in English Literature. For what I can tell, the majority of graduates from the English department in China seek employment in the fields of education, translation, office administration etc.

In my efforts to break into professional writing, I find that my language background is a neutral factor. At the current job market, some employers find a language major with swift technical aptitude to be a valid candidate, while others insist on a strong technical background, for example, a degree in engineering, telecommunications or computers science.

Professional technical communicators in the blogosphere have been debating over the value of a formal education in technical communication. Unfortunately, universities in China that offer courses in professional communication are few and far between. That’s why there is a gap between the employer’s expectation and what the potential employee can offer.

Career Path

I’ve kept my eyes on technical communication in China for a while now. I’ve known practitioners who are hired straight out of school. There are also late comers like myself who make deliberate yet thoughtful efforts in breaking into the field. However, it is not always an easy ride. My first shot at becoming a technical writer was not successful, but I didn’t give up.

In my previous position, I parlay my language skills into translation of technical documentation. However, planning, writing, editing, translating and publishing are all indispensable parts of the documentation life cycle. I firmly believe that my experience in technical translation has a very positive impact on my current job in the long run.

Technical Writing in China

From what I know, location is a decisive factor in seeking employment, even more so than in America. The need to recruit technical writers, be it staff writer, independent contractor or freelance writer is highly concentrated in tech hubs such as Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou and Shenzhen. If you’re serious about becoming a technical writer, relocating is a must.

The reality is that technical writing is still not a full-fledged professional in China. It’s worth noticing that the employers are most likely to be foreign companies who recognize the value to produce quality documentation in English.

Professional Development

In China, the professional support channel for technical writers is almost non-existent unless you’ve already landed a technical writer position in the first place. Thankfully, I can learn from many active professional communicators from America, UK, Canada, Germany and India.

I follow dozens of technical writing blogs closely, which are contributed by individual writers, help authoring tool vendors as well as professional associations. I also keep tabs on professional publications, podcasts and seminars. By getting myself emerged in best practices and industry trend, I hope that I can make a contribution to promote and develop technical communication in China.

Your Turn

What’s your impression on technical writing in China? Whether you are an ambitious new writer who’s also trying to break into the filed or a seasoned technical writer with years of experience, I would love to see you comments on this blog.


The Curious Case of a Missing Piece of Documentation

Recently at Industrial and Commercial Bank of China

Nowadays, most people had multiple encounters with the bank(s) of their choice on a regular basis. Given the increased pace of economic development in China, the diversity of banking services are literally mushrooming. However, with the rise of demand, the quality of delivery seems to remain far from satisfying.

The most common complaint is the long average waiting time. If you ask an average Chinese person, you will find out that it is perfectly normal for someone to wait one to two hours before he or she is served at the bank. Admittedly, banks are taking measures to mitigate this pain point, such as the wide deployment of queuing management system and lots of conformable chairs at the bank lobby.

However, these measures are superficial, from my point of view, if you are willing to dig deeper into the entangled practices and customer-unfriendly procedures as I do. Recently, an incident that happened to me at Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (largest Bank of China’s ‘Big Four’ state-owned commercial banks) was, to say the least, very irritating.

The incident concerns the commonplace currency exchange service. If you had exchanged currency using the ATM machines, which is likely to be available at major international airports, you may wonder what could possible go wrong. The processes that I going to introduce may only be applicable to banks at China, so you should not be alarmed if the processes are different in your own country.

Well, in order to make my points conveyed more clearly, I will use flowchart to illustrate and compare the current scenario and the ideal scenario in terms of currency exchange service.

In Figure 1.1, I give a detailed account of what a customer will experience as a first-timer. Although the scenario is constructed based on my own experience, I have witness others go through very similar situations.

Figure 1.1 Current Scenario and Major Issues (click on the picture to expand)

In Figure 1.2, I create a streamlined flowchart, which will substantially reduce the time an average customer waste on delusive procedures and misleading messages from bank’s employees.

Figure 1.2 Ideal Scenario (click on the picture to expand)

Context in communication

As I dwell on the implication of this incident at the bank, the theory of high context and low context culture that I learned in a series of cross-communication seminars a couple of years ago reemerged. According to American anthropologist Edward T. Hall, culture differences can be categorized in to high context and low context.

High-context (HC) communication or message is one in which most if the information is either in the physical context or internalized in the person, while little is in the coded, explicit, transmitted part of the message. A low-context (LC) communication is the just the opposite, i.e., the mass information is vested in the explicit code.

As it is noted by professor Linell Davis in her book Doing Culture: Cross-cultural Communication in Action, it is presumptuous to generalize about people from different cultures on their nationality and/or ethnicity, but there appear to be recurrent and underlying patterns that can shed some light on people’s comfort level with codes of communication.

Westerns, as low-context communicators, look for trust and user impersonal sources of information while communicators from more high-context cultures prefer personal sources of information.

In an interview between Melanie G Flanders and Tom Johnson dated back to 2007, Melanie argued that technical communion in China as it is known in the west is “non-existent”. From my conversation with Chinese technical writers, they all agree that the technical communication is a new and emerging field in China, but they can’t quite fathom the reason why technical communication has not taken off yet.

By comparing the current scenario the ideal scenario, I come to realize that the fundamental significance is not that the ideal scenario has a more streamlined workflow in place, but rather the ideal scenario reflects a completely different state of mind.

The Chinese, as high-context communicators, prefer verbal communication whenever possible.  As typical Chinese customers seeking services at a bank, we either turn to bank employees for help or they offer help to us. Compared to written communication, interpersonal communications feel more natural, warm and amiable to high-context communicators. That’s why it has become the default communication channel for most Chinese.

However, the problem is that this kind of communication is also highly vulnerable to human error.  These days, it’s very likely that employees at the bank of other public/private sectors are not as competent as they should be. That’s why I would argue that it’s also necessary to have a backup communication plan. In the ideal scenario, verbal communication may be reduced to the minimum. However, only by getting equipped with a well-written and up-to-date documentation can we guarantee the effectiveness and efficiency of business transactions.

Do you agree that cultural differences will have an implicit or explicit impact on the development of technical communication? Your comments are always welcome!


Linell Davis,  Doing Culture: Cross-cultural Communication in Action ( Beijing: Foreign Language Teaching and Research Press,2001), 54,59.

Do IKEA’s step-by-step visual manuals manifest a lack of content strategy?

Are you an IKEA fan?

With the New Year approaching, I decided to renovate my living room. When it comes to indoor decoration, IKEA is my favorite place to go. Not only because the relaxing shopping atmosphere there, but also because I actually like the idea of assembling pieces of furniture together by myself.

First thing you need to know if you’re not familiar with buying furniture the IKEA way is that you, as the buyer, are responsible for assembly and shipment of your purchase. If you prefer, you can ask for professional assembly and shipping services, which will lead to extra costs in addition to the original prices of the products.

Previously, I’d purchase lots of IKEA’s products, among which are kitchenware, two chairs, and a mini-bookshelf, etc. After hours of wandering around, I finally set my eyes on IKEA MALM chest of 4 drawers, which would provide an ideal storage space for my clothes. Since the grass weight was so overwhelming, I booked the shipping service, and four days later, viola a huge box were delivered to me.

When I opened the cardboard box, I was a little bit surprised, for I’d never expected there would be so many components, which could mainly be divided into two categories: two bags of screws of various shapes and a dozen or so pieces of wood.

I wondered if I had underestimated the complexity of the work at hand, so I asked my father to help me in this endeavor, since he has always been a handy craftsman in my mind. With the manual that came shipped with all the material, we ventured into uncharted water.

IKEA’S step-by-step visual manuals: friend or foe?

If you’re a devoted IKEA fan as I’m, you know all so well that IKEA’s manuals are notoriously or reputably known for their lack of textual instructions, depending on your comfort level dealing with visual cues. The differences among thinking styles may seem very subtle to the unobservant eyes, but if you look closely, you will find that some are distinctively more advantageous in deciphering visual cues than others.

In my copy of the IKEA MALM chest of 4 drawers manual, almost all the content are step-by-step instructions, except that at the very beginning there is an important warning message conveyed in 31 languages about the necessity of fixing the chest into the wall.

The problem with IKEA’s visual manuals is not so much that it demands a certain level of architectural understanding and mastery of craftsmanship, but a spirit of trial and error and a willingness to make informed guesses.

There are people who regard IKEA’s visual manual as a money-saving tactic to mitigate translation and localization fees. Even if IKEA is willing to give it a try, I doubt it will be easy to produce textual manuals in an expeditious manner, letting alone incurring a large amount of productions costs during the process.

Ultimately, it’s the customers who suffer the most, as indicated by the following comment from a desperate buyer of AKURUM 49″ base corner cabinet.

Instructions are worthless!!!!!

In fact until today I have been for the past 15 years a HUGE fan of Ikea. That ended with the absolute worst set of instructions I have ever encountered in my 53 years.

Here’s the deal. I’m putting together the Akurum bas corner. IT goes OK as far as the instructions went… What is wrong is that the instructions DO NOT
give you a list of the other 9 pieces you need to build the cabinet. Granted the lazy susan baskets are a no brainer but…

What draw, what door, what draw front …how do you attach the cover panel… like which screws.. and through which holes…..??

TOTALLY USELESS INstructions…. what really irks me is I just laid out $7000 for my 20 some odd cabinets and with these instructions it will take a month just to build them.

Why doesn’t someone at IKEA get it right??? and at least list the parts you need so you can have the the instructions for the base cabinet??

Its not like I’m a moron… I am a design engineer and I work with abstracts and abstract concepts every day…


Do IKEA’s step-by-step visual manuals manifest a lack of content strategy?

If you find yourself not in accordance with IKEA’s visual manuals despite how much effort you’ve invested in, what are your options?

  1. Content IKEA’s technical support personnel for directions via telephone or its official website for clarification.
  2. Hire an installation professional to accomplish the daunting task for you.
  3. Post a question at, which is an unaffiliated website run by IKEA fans worldwide to discuss topics regarding IKEA products. It also came as a surprise to me that it’s this fan-driven website, rather than the official website that provide many manuals in PDF, some of which can easily generate 10000+ page views, 1000+ download and threads of discussion.

According to Kristina Halvorson, author of Content Strategy for the Web, content includes “the text, graphics, video, and audio that make up an interactive experience” and content strategy means “the practice of planning for content creation, delivery, and governance”. In this sense, IKEA is obviously lacking a comprehensive content strategy.

My IKEA content strategy wish list

  • Even if textual manuals cannot be put into practice soon, how about some numbered stickers that will make assembly a complex piece of furniture as if we were putting together a jigsaw puzzle.
  • Launch an official customer forum and replenish individual product page with space for discussion.
  • Encourage diversified format of assembly instructions, e.g. video, pictures, 3D modeling, etc.

In order to give you a glimpse of what a manual that is stripped of words is like, here is an online version of IKEA MALM chest of 3 drawers. (Sorry that I didn’t find the copy for 4 drawers.)

Vodpod videos no longer available.

IKEA MALM Chest of 3 Drawers, posted with vodpod




Hands-on Usability Testing and My Reflection on Information Architecture

I’ve always been an advocate of usability testing, so much so that I’ll be even willing to turn myself into the subject of such test, when such occasion occurs.

A couple of days ago, I simulated a self-actuated website usability test, or more precisely, a real-time feedback session with its product manager. At first, I suppose that both sides are skeptical about usefulness of such interaction, but in all fairness, the outcome was quite enlightening, resulting in a revamped site design.

To avoid giving the impression of advertising endorsement, the commerciality of this website shall not be the focus of our attention. All you need to know is that this is a site that provides resume writing/consulting services.

In this post, I’m going to share with you what do I think of the site’s usability as a typical front-end user, and how the web design reflects its implicit information architecture.

Don’t Make Me Think

If there is anything I’ve learnt from Steve Krug’s best-selling book Don’t make me think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, is that the first law of usability is to be easy on users’ thinking process.

According to Steve, every visitor to your site brings with him/her a certain amount of goodwill. For instance, an accidental visitor to your website may want to solve a puzzling question, to explore a topic of personal interest, or better yet, to ponder over the possibility of purchasing a service or product that you happen to be providing or selling.

For small business owners and start-ups that don’t have a lot of money to burn, every single click counts. Even if you have invested a lot of money in online advertising that only accounts for a small fraction of your marketing budget, it’s still the web designer responsibility to ensure the best user experience of visiting your website.

If your visitors enjoy your site, they will probably spend more time on your site. If they happen to dislike it, no one is going to write you a letter complaining about how lost or unsatisfied they feel when they are clicking around. Chances are within a minute or so, you will lose a potential customer that could otherwise been won over.

Information Architecture Made Easy

When conceiving a web design, the designer can be tangled up in minute details easily and forget the bigger picture. In a very informative post Information Architecture 101: Techniques and Best Practices, Cameron Chapman argues that:

Every site should have a clear purpose, whether that’s to sell a product, inform people about a subject, provide entertainment and so forth. Without a clear purpose, it’s virtually impossible to create any kind of effective IA.

The way the information on a site is organized should be directly correlated to what the site’s purpose is. On a site where the end-goal is to get visitors to purchase something, the content should be set up in such a way that it funnels visitors toward that goal. On a site that’s meant to inform, the IA should lead people through the content in a way that one page builds on the last one.

You may have sub-goals within a site, requiring you to have subsets of content with different goals. That’s fine, as long as you understand how each piece of content fits in relation to the goals of a site.

In other words, the information architecture of a website should be more than an aesthetic argument, but rather a means to an end.

Personal Preference vs. Bad Design Decision

If you really care about how visitors think about your website, then schedule a formal or informal usability test. I understand that the web designer can become quite defensive since he/she has spent hours or even days in prototyping and programming. Would you rather be end up with a user-unfriendly site that only suits your taste, or a site that can help to achieve your business goal even though you have to make some compromises in design?

I’ve inserted a screenshot of the revamped site with my comment on the design. Click on the picture to see a large version!

First, I notice is that the navigation bar lack pull-down sub-menus that outline the information architecture of the entire site. It so happens that the designer has more content under each category, but it’s completely hidden by the design. If a visitor wants to learn more about individual categories, they need to click back and forth among numerous links, which is quite a discouraging experience, to say the least.

Second, I notice that the most important information is not highlighted. In the original design, the Application Now button is put in the far right end corner of the page. Since the designer has gone through so much trouble convincing visitors of conducting a business transaction, wouldn’t it be a shame not to make it a smooth process for them to close the deal?

Third, it’s always good practice to follow the design patterns, because the average visitor is used to them. However, on the front page, certain elements, which appear to be clickable, turn out to be static text. Eventually, visitors will be overwhelmed by confusion and lose faith in your site as a whole.

Last but not least, take a look at your site from the users’ prospective and think about what information they may need. In this case, visitors are most likely concerned about billing issues, delivery method, refund policy and so on, which can be nicely integrated into a FAQ page.

Time Will Tell

During the usability test, one of hardest things to deal with is learning how to agree to disagree. While I’m glad to make contribution to the new design, I’m also eager to know if such changes will actually have a positive impact on user experience. Make sure to keep an eye on user behavior metrics using web analytics solution and make corresponding design or content tweaks if necessary.

How to work with Interpreters

More Than Meets the Eye: Interpreters in Action

A while back, I got another major interpretation gig. Compared with translation that deals with written words, interpretation is both exciting and a little nerve-racking, because situation can vary from client to client.

In this international conference on technology transfer, I was assigned as the consecutive interpreter in one of the afternoon sessions dedicated to biotechnology and new medicine. Seven keynote speakers from different universities, research institutes, or companies were allocated 30 minutes each for technology briefings respectively.

Almost all presentations were informative and extremely fast-paced. However, since the organizer did not schedule any break during the session, listeners worn out gradually. The irony was that eventually the interpreter became the most attentive listener.

Thus, it suffices to say that a close cooperation between speaker and interpreter is pivotal in getting your message across to the audiences. And that begs the question: now that you understand the importance of an interpreter’s role, what can you do to improve the cooperation? Here is a list of practical advice that you can adopt.

Provide Interpreters with Materials Ahead Of Time

Ideally, all trained interpreters should act as walking Wikipedia, but the truth is that most of professional interpreters have their unique field of expertise, and they may get uncomfortable working with unfamiliar subject matters.

What you can do to help interpreters up and running quickly is to provide background information as early as possible, while we also understand that in some cases the speakers may make changes at the last minute. Believe or not, most interpreters I know are very meticulous and diligent. As long as we get something to start with, i.e. draft/abstract/outline, we will go through all the troubles of being prepared ourselves.

Establish a Rapport with Your Interpreter during Initial Interaction

Despite all the argument about the role of interpreters, I believe that professional interpreters are not only messengers, but also coordinators between two cultures. In case you feel disoriented in a new setting or need any help getting ready before delivering a speech or participating in a discussion, it’s always a good idea to talk to your interpreter. It will also be helpful if you could introduce yourself and give a little background of what you’re going to say.

Keep an Eye on the Interpreter When You Go Along

If you’ve worked with an interpreter previously, you’ll know that the interpreter can only absorb a certain amount of information each time. Therefore, in consecutive interpretation session, it would be of tremendous help to us if you can:

  • Divide your content  into small chunks of information, so that the interpreter will not leave out any important details due to information overload.
  • Try to keep the pace, tone, and volume of your voice at a medium level, so that your interpreter can hear you clearly.
  • Only start another session of conversation until your interpreter is complete with the precious one. Due to the syntactic differences among languages, some languages may take more time to translate than others, so try to restrain your urge to jump-start another conversation.
  • In some situations where the interpreters may ask you to clarify certain terminologies or special usages, your cooperation will be highly valued.

In conclusion, as a professional interpreter, I welcome the challenges of working with different clients. I hope that by learning how interpreters work, you will also feel more conformable working with one in the future.

Technology Briefing Session

What You Can Do With An IPad

I’ve always been a big fan of Apple products. But due to practical reasons, so far I’ve been a proud of a first generation iPod Shuffle (512MB) and a second generation iPod Classic (120GB).

When iPad was first launched at the WWDC 2010, I was so amazed by Steve’s presentation. However, given some unpleasant experience of my first PDA back to 2003, I was hesitant to jump on the iPad bandwagon. I guess, deep down in my heart, I was afraid that a tablet computer will prove to be as less functional as my PDA.

Well, almost a month has passed since I first hold an iPad in the palm of my hand (special thanks to John), I would say that my iPad experience has been a mixed blessing so far.

The Blessing

Up until now, millions of iPad has been sold, an indication that iPad is well-received in the market place. If you were also impressed by some of the product demos, you really should be.

The multi-touch functionality work perfectly on this tablet device and the iPad virtual keyboard is much easier to use compared to iPod Touch/iPhone counterpart. The battery life is outstanding. Even if you watch hours of video, a fully charged iPad is most likely to sustain a day’s use.

Apple’s official iPad apps, such as iBooks, Numbers, Pages, and Keynote, all prove to be satisfactory. Users can also conveniently get access to new apps via App Store, where both paid and free apps are nicely categorized and available for download. It should be note that many popular paid apps also come with a free lite version.

The Curse

It is a truth universally acknowledged that iPad’s biggest faux pas is its closed platform. Be it intentionally or not, Apple has succeeded in making downloading/uploading almost impossible in Safari. As a result, the transformation of data is a really painful process, even though you do have several choices:

  • You can sync data through iTunes, which is neither quick nor smooth.
  • You can transfer data via blue tooth, which for some mysterious reason never work on my Vista HP laptop.
  • You also can upload data to a Web-based file hosting service, such as Dropbox from a PC/laptop, and then download it to iPad, which is my favorite method to keep data in sync across multiple OS and/or devices.

Passive Consumers vs. Creative Contributors

Another major concern from iPad critics is based on the argument that most iPad users are passive content consumers rather than active content contributors. Thus, critics are worried that the popularity of iPad will have a negative influence on social media in the long run. Though it seems to be a valid argument, I don’t think iPad is to blame.

The tablet of nature of this device makes it difficult to generate content, just as any other tablet out there or might be produced in the future. The truth is, during the day, most of us work with PC or laptop so that we can run fully functional software. But, by the end of the day, it would be nice to lay back and relax for a while with your iPad. There is no need feeling guilty for becoming a content consumer temporarily, because it should be considered as refreshment from your hard work.

Weekly Link Roundup 24/10/2010

Hi, my dear readers, sorry for the delay in posts. As you may or may not know, Chinese bloggers had been experienced some technical difficulties recently because EdgeCast‘s content delivery service was blocked by GFW for almost two weeks. Fortunately, everything has turned back to normal. So, without further ado, here is my latest weekly link roundup.

Establishing and Building Mutual Respect with Technical Team Members

A major part of working as a technical writer involves collaborating with the SMEs. In this article, Eric offers great advice on how to become a productive team member. He argues that the secret of establishing a productive working environment is to build mutual respect between writers and SMEs. To this end, Eric urges writers to have hands-on experiences of the products they are documenting, be a team player and always stay in the loop.

The Documentation Maturity Model (infographic)

If you’re an inquisitive user of any software/product, chances are you’ve some pleasant or not so pleasant experiences of its documentation. Based on researches of the best technical documentation sites, Mark proposes a documentation maturity model, which consists of six levels of technical sophistication. The significance of this maturity model, as far as I’m concerned, is to instruct companies with a lower maturity model to strive for a higher one, so as to stay competitive by providing a better overall user experience.

How to Write a Terrible Technical Document

While technical writers are perplexed by the ultimate question, i.e. how to produce quality technical documentation, it’s relative easy to put on your critic’s hat when you spot bad technical documentation.

According to the author of this article, signs of bad documentation include: obtuse or indecipherable document title; wrong, missing or low-quality images; flowery and emotional language; circular cross-references; no TOC or Index; unusable Index.

Do you have anything to add?

Drupal best practice: Document your way to understanding

I really enjoy reading this humorous post by Angie, in which she asks Drupal users to become active contributors of technical documentation for this open source project. After all, user-generated content is the key to improve project performance and maintain an active user community.