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Comparing Technical Writing and Instructional Design: Which Brings More Value to Your Organization?

True story, I once worked at a large recruiting company that had a relatively small L&D department they called staff development and one of the core employees on that team was a technical writer.

To top that off they also had no LMS. That’s what spurred my idea to write about where to put digital training content if you don’t have an LMS. But that’s neither here nor there. This is a comparison of the value of technical writing vs. instructional design.

If you know me at all then you know I value instructional design more. Of course, that’s not always 100% true, though, because there are bad instructional designers out there who are of less value to an organization than the best technical writers.

What creates more value, technical documentation or employees trained specifically how to use technology for their job?

Whatever way you look at things, you can’t deny that it’s a competitive market for everyone. Having a skill set that stands out from the crowd is an invaluable asset. But, having an organization that values the right skills is essential to an organization’s success. Unfortunately, not everyone at a company sees the true value but rather gets stuck in the old way of doing things.

Technical writing and instructional design are two disciplines that may cross paths quite a bit yet couldn’t be more different. They both bring unique capabilities to the table but one generally (if done right) brings more direct value.

The differences between technical writing and instructional design offer different types of value and both are necessary. One is going to drive more direct benefit, though, while the other is sometimes simply a necessity. In this post, I’ll dive into the differences between these two disciplines, compare their impacts, and see if I can suss out each role’s value proposition.

Both serve to help people use technolgy better and understand complex processes.

At their core, technical writing and instructional design both serve to help people better understand and utilize complex information. By effectively transferring knowledge from one source to another, whether that’s through instructions, user manuals, or training materials, they help people become more familiar with technical products and processes they use each day.

Using words, visuals, and multimedia, these disciplines facilitate the understanding of complex processes but for very different purposes.

But what’s the difference between technical writing and instructional design?

At its most basic level, technical writing relies on technical knowledge and expertise to create comprehensive documentation for systems, processes, products, and services.

On the other hand, instructional design leverages learning theory and experience to develop training materials and solutions to address specific training needs for employees in the workplace.

Both help in their way and some would consider each essential, but one is more focused on value whereas the other is more focused on the facts in general, even if it’s not directed toward value.

Ready to take a closer look at how technical writing and instructional design compare and contrast?

Understanding What Technical Writing and Instructional Design Is

You’ll find technical writers and instructional designers both stewing around in the corporate world. However understanding the differences between the two can help you both interact with them, utilize their expertise, and decide which one is best for your organization or problem.

Technical writing is the process of creating documentation for technical systems, products, processes, and services. Technical writers typically produce instruction manuals, user guides, product documentation, help files, and other technical documents designed to help people understand and use complex products and processes. It’s focused on the software and how to use it.

Technical writers document technical processes.

Instructional design, on the other hand, is the process of creating training materials and solutions to address particular needs. Instructional designers use learning theory and experience to develop training materials that are focused on specific needs such as training videos, eLearning, help articles, simulations, and more. It’s focused on employees and how they need to use software for their jobs.

The audience of each one is very different but there is sometimes an overlap. Technical writers’ audience can be developers, users, and employees. The audience of an instructional designer is typically a user or employee, rarely a developer.

Both disciplines are important for ensuring people can understand and use products and processes effectively. The primary difference between technical writing and instructional design boils down to intent.

Technical writing is focused on documenting systems and processes in-depth, essentially documenting exactly how something works and the processes behind them. Instructional designers can use that same information but it’s typically presented in a more concise manner that’s job performance-oriented.

Instructional designers help employees use technology better specifically for their job.

So, a technical writer might document all the things you can do in a CRM with in-depth documentation of each part of it. An instructional designer would likely focus on performing a specific task and how that process works for a specific employee and their job.

It all boils down to this: instructional designers create engaging training content that shows employees how to use a system to do their job with the software. A technical writer might show an employee how a system works in-depth with no concern for their job, only the system.

The two disciplines are related, but technical writing and instructional design serve different purposes. Understanding the differences between these two disciplines can help you decide which one best suits your needs.

What is Technical Writing?

Technical writing is the process of creating technical documents and documentation for systems, products, processes, and services. You might say it’s a bit bland, complex, text-heavy, and difficult to understand. A good technical writer should be able to combat the difficult-to-understand part of things but not so much the rest all the time.

Technical writers are well-versed in the subject matter and they may work with developers directly to document processes and systems. That may be so other developers can work with it or it could be so employees (including other developers) can learn about the system or work on it later down the road.

But, who do you know that’s grudging around in technical documentation to learn how to do something?

Probably nobody since it’s hard enough to get people to take a course that will help them do their job with the system.

The primary goal of a technical writer is to create accurate, clear, and concise technical documents.

Technical writers create technical documents.

While technical documents can include user manuals, instruction guides, help files, and more, they can also create any type of reference materials and are typically the holder of style guides for technical documentation. It gets pretty complex, especially keeping track of similar documentation in several different forms including guides, job aids, and more.

Ever heard of DITA? There’s a reason for that. It’s extremely complex, and even with a good strategy, it’s extremely difficult to manage.

Technical writing should be tailored to the target audience and often involves collaboration with subject matter experts to ensure accuracy. While it’s often quite dry, it’s also an essential part of product development especially when technical systems need clear documentation to be used by other parties who work with the software being developed.

Probably one of the #1 audiences for technical writing is other developers. No average user is digging through 100-page documents to find out how to use a complex system.

Good technical writing can help users save time and effort and also make it easier for other developers to create things that work with the system.

While technical writing can be extremely complex or simplified quite a bit, instructional design is focused almost entirely on simplicity.

What is Instructional Design?

Instructional design is different from technical writing on almost every level. From the start, the audience of an instructional designer could be anyone. Instruction can also be created for any topic, technical or not. So, while technical writing focuses on technical content, instructional designers cover everything including sometimes technical content.

We’re instructional designers and our focus is almost entirely on technical training including custom software training solutions.

Instructional design is the process of creating training materials and solutions to address the specific needs of employees. Instructional designers are experts in learning theory, sometimes for children and sometimes for adult learning in both higher education and the workplace. Instructional design varies quite a bit and covers a lot of different audiences.

But, at its core instructional design is always about creating educationally sound content for learning or performing a job. Our focus is adult learning theory in the workplace. That means it’s often performance-focused for helping employees do their job better.

Instructional design typically focuses on what employees need to do for their job.

Instructional design focuses on the person learning (we hope), aiming to create an engaging and effective learning experience. Instructional designers design, develop, and implement training content that helps people understand and use complex concepts and systems. They collaborate with subject matter experts to create materials that will suit the needs and goals of the target audience.

There’s also the analysis phase which is essential too or else you’re chasing a goal that might not even be the right goal. The system instructional designers typically use is ADDIE which is our favorite. There are lots of competing systems but none of them come close to how flexible and comprehensive ADDIE is.

Instructional design is an essential part of any effective training. With the help of instructional design, organizations can achieve a better and more effective work environment for employees. Good instructional design increases engagement and retention, resulting in better learning outcomes.

It can also reduce the time and effort needed for training, resulting in a higher return on investment. With a good analysis, the content instructional designers create should be simple, focused, and effective at helping employees do specific jobs easier, faster, and more accurately.

The Benefits Of Each

I know I made it clear at the very beginning of this post that I hold one skill above the other. I have good reasons for that, but I still know there are benefits to both. Each one plays their role in technology and technical writing can’t be done away with just as much as instructional design can’t be.

In fact, for complex systems, there’s no way to get around the importance and essential need for technical writers and technical documentation. Technology couldn’t be as complex as it is and people from different organizations couldn’t work together as effectively without technical writers.

So, what are the benefits of each?

Benefits of Technical Writing

Technical writing provides numerous benefits for organizations, especially within the IT department and with other IT departments or technology companies. It documents complex products and processes, enabling users and engineers to use them more efficiently.

And sometimes engineers wouldn’t be able to use a system at all if it weren’t for the technical documentation!

Technical documents can also be used to provide users with quick access to information when they need it as long as it’s searchable. The technical writer I mentioned at the beginning was mostly in charge of creating job aids that help end-users quite effectively. Job aids (a type of performance support) are a great (but forgotten) way of providing focused help for employees and technical writers can be great at that.

Technical writing is essential for technology companies. They wouldn’t be able to work together with other tech companies if it weren’t for proper documentation of technology by technical writers.

Benefits of Instructional Design

Instructional design provides numerous benefits to organizations. Pretty much endless benefits can come from a good instructional designer doing good work in a good learning & development department that has good leadership with proper direction.

One of the core focuses of every instructional designer should be to help organizations create relevant (relevance is king for learning), engaging, and effective training materials that help employees do their job better.

Isn’t the goal of every company to make money by employees doing their job better?

I think so and every organization is always looking for ways to make those improvements. From benefits to a good work environment, companies are trying to do better for their stockholder or to make more money. Instructional design and good training is a key piece of that puzzle because it facilitate professional development of the best kind.

Good instructional designers increase engagement and retention, resulting in better learning outcomes and hopefully employees doing their job better. It also reduces the amount of time and effort needed for training, resulting in a more financial benefit.

Good instructional design increases engagement, retention, and job performance.

By creating well-designed training content that’s focused on performance, organizations save time and money by reducing the training and support needed in the organization. We’ve worked on several projects where the sole goal is to reduce calls coming into the help desk. So, $40,000 invested one time can sometimes lead to $100,000+ saved yearly.

You can see how we saved one organization money with a well-designed eLearning course and in general digital training saves organization’s buckets of money.

Instructional design has endless benefits for organizations as long as it’s done well. Another way is by increasing customer satisfaction. When an employee learns how to use new systems in the context of their job it helps them do their job better.

Both technical writing and instructional design are essential but let’s take a look at how each one impacts organizations.

Assessing the Impact of Technical Writing and Instructional Design on Organizations

Both technical writing and instructional design have the potential to have a positive impact on organizations. Technical writing ensures engineers can do their job more effectively, resulting in cost savings and better technology overall. Technical systems without documentation are essentially useless to anyone but the engineers creating them.

The impact of technical writing and instructional design may vary from organization to organization. For a tech company technical writers are an essential part on many different levels. Tech companies probably have a fleet of technical writers that make sure every part of their system and process is documented.

Most organizations aren’t tech companies, though. That means they likely don’t need a fleet of technical writers in the IT department. That job may fall somewhat to the engineers themselves who might not even create custom systems at all but simply customize off-the-shelf software (like Salesforce).

In either case employees as well as people need to be trained on systems. No system is easy enough for all employees to be comfortable with it and not need training. That’s just a fact of life. Even the simplest system requires training to truly use it effectively.

Does your organization require in-depth documentation or simple performance-focused training?

Instructional designers are going to ensure that people are trained based on performance. That means their training will be focused on how to use technology to do their job effectively and better. Training created by a good instructional designer will always be simple, performance-focused, and the ideal solution for helping employees use your organization’s technology.

So, while each organization has different needs, instructional designers are essential with a certain number of employees. For tech companies who sell their services or products, technical documentation isn’t going to train customers well. But, a good certification program designed by an instructional designer with a fancy badge at the end will help quite a bit.

How do you think organizations like Salesforce, HP Enterprise, and Slack use training to benefit their sales? They use certification programs designed by instructional designers that are geared toward consumers.

So, that all leads us to instructional designers being essential to all organizations with technical writing being a distant second. While technical writing is still essential, it should take a back seat in most cases to good training created by instructional designers. Training designed by subject matter experts or technical writers themselves won’t have the same impact.

You’ll get a bigger bank for your buck with good instructional design.

Measuring the Financial Benefit from Technical Writing and Instructional Design

Organizations should measure the financial return from technical writing and instructional design to determine which one is more beneficial. The benefits of both disciplines can be measured in terms of cost savings, time savings, improved learning outcomes, and increased customer satisfaction.

Organizations should compare these metrics to determine which discipline is more beneficial to their organization. Organizations should also consider the resources required for each discipline. Technical writing and instructional design require different resources, and organizations should assess the cost of these resources before making a decision.

Measuring the financial return of technical writers and instructional designers is difficult but necessary.

Organizations should also consider the amount of time required for each discipline, as this can have a significant impact on return. By assessing the cost, resources, and time required for each discipline, organizations can make an informed decision about which one is more beneficial to their organization.

While I can tell you the financial benefit of instructional design will mostly be higher, that’s up to you to figure out. It won’t be easy but if you want to truly find what’s right for your organization then you’ll find a way. I trust that you will.

Which one is right for your organization?

There’s no way to say definitively which one is right without thorough analysis. It would require collecting a great deal of data and doing some direct before-after comparisons. Neither one is easy to get a clear reading on which will provide the biggest benefit for your organization.

But, given the infinite benefits that instructional design can bring to an organization, it’s safe to say that instructional design will likely bring more benefits to your organization.

As with most things, your organization has to consider the cost, resources, and time required for each and weigh that against the benefits. By taking all of these factors into consideration, organizations can make an informed decision about which one is best for their organization.

Wrap Up

Technical writing and instructional design are very different. While there can be some overlap in technical disciplines, even within that their approach varies a great deal. They bring unique capabilities and fill specific requirements, though.

Understanding the differences between these two disciplines is essential in determining which one is best for your organization. Technical writing focuses on documenting technical information while instructional design focuses on conveying the right information only in a concise, clear, and performance-based way.

Organizations should assess the impact of each on their organization and measure the financial return to determine which one is more beneficial. By taking all of this into consideration I think you’ll likely find that instructional design is the more beneficial role though you can’t discount the importance of technical writers also even if their impact is more limited.

Are you looking to create more of an impact on your organization? An instructional design consultant is exactly what you need to help technical projects run more smoothly with well-trained employees. We’re here for you and would love to learn about your digital transformation project, just schedule a free consultation so we can get to know your project and work to find the best solution.

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