"It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.” --Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs’ disregard for technical detail has become a mainstay of his legacy as the entrepreneurial visionary who transformed how people live. Tales of Jobs’ disinterest in block diagrams, and other features of technical design reflect his insistent focus on creating products that would redefine human experience.
Against specs and charts, Jobs focused his attention on details of user design—the details that shaped how people experienced Apple’s technologies. But even Jobs’ investment in design reflected more than a practical concern with making devices easy to use.
Considered within the full context of the Apple brand, ease-of-use constitutes only one element in a design vision premised on the delivery of a fully immersive visual, physical, emotional, and what we might call "ideological" experience. Jobs cared about aesthetics, about how a device would make users feel. And this aesthetic vision also implied a set of heroic narratives—embedded in slogans like “think different”—that situated those who used Apple products as champions of creative individualism. Simply put, Jobs did not sell technological devices; he sold a system of heroically humanist beliefs linked to sensual engagement with technological objects that, ultimately, functioned as aesthetic extensions of the self. (There must be an easier way to write that last sentence, but I kind of like it as is.)
So, yeah—Jobs transformed how we think about, use, and even relate to technology. And he also changed how we live. It’s all very impressive and important—really, it is! But, for writers of technical content, it sets a pretty high bar. In the “post-Apple era” (yep—just made that one up!), technical writing can no longer make an impression by simply presenting a bare account of technical details. Moreover, the new demands of technical writing do not simply reflect the need to incorporate elements of effective branding strategy. Rather, after Jobs, people have come to think of technologies in a different way. The very notion of the “technical” itself takes on bigger meaning. Technical writing—at least in a thoroughly “Jobsian” sense (made that one up too!)— entails presenting technical details relative to the broader scope of human life.
I’m not saying it’s easy. But then again, linking apparently minor details to larger truths kind of represents the mark of great writing. Jobs may have been the first to design and market technologies in ways that prioritized their relevance to human experience. He was not, however, the first person to think about technology in this way. Jobs himself described how his vision reflects the influence of the arts and humanities:
For my part, it's actually hard to imagine the humanities without some connection to technology. Many have argued that art and technology are in fact fundamentally entwined—not so much “married,” but born together, conjoined like Siamese twins. Yet Jobs made these connections newly relevant in profoundly powerful ways.
In any event, I’m not saying we need to be Shakespeare to write effective technical content. I’m merely saying that Jobs’ legacy highlights the importance of thinking in more literary-aesthetic and, ultimately, more “humanistic” terms when we write about technical topics. More broadly, I think the lesson and legacy of Jobs’ influence highlights what artists have known for a long time: That the non-human stuff of the world only ever assumes meaning relative to human experience. After all, that’s pretty much how “meaning” works: We know the world via our experience of it. So, the more fully and deeply we relate “things” to human experience, the more meaningful they become. Adequate technical and scientific content provides accurate technical detail. Jobs' lesson to marketers is that truly engaging content highlights why technical details matter in the larger scope of human life.
Still, when it comes to content creation, expanding on the more explicitly human dimensions of highly scientific or technical material can represent a unique set of challenges. Storytelling is widely embraced as the most engagingly human way to present information. By representing otherwise abstract ideas in the concrete and familiar context of human experience, stories present concepts in more practical and recognizable form. Yet topics that tend to be more abstract or technically specialized can also seem further removed from the space of immediate human experience.
Here are few practical tips for how to find the story in less obviously human topics:
- Employ a first-person narrator: When it comes to humanizing technical information, one easy answer involves simply employing a “first-person narrator” that presents information in a more human voice.
- The Technical Sandwich: Sometimes—actually, often—using the first-person is not enough. Without the drama of conflict and resolution, content can quickly devolve into plotless droning, like a boring lecture. Instead, try presenting technical details within the context of human drama. This strategy would involve what writer, content strategist and LinkedIn advisor Geoff Whiting once cleverly referred to as the “technical sandwich” approach: Place the technical/scientific data or information somewhere within a human story. The key to this strategy is to make sure the human story makes the technical information relevant to human needs:The technical information can, for example, serve as the solution to the conflict raised within the story.
- The Carl Sagan Method: Another version of the technical sandwich involves framing scientific or technical information within a philosophical question that generates a new perspective on human experience. Like Steve Jobs, Carl Sagan had a talent for communicating the big picture. Sagan was particularly talented at teaching us how scientific insight into “millions and billions” of stars enabled us to see human experiences from a new “cosmic” perspective:
Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people.