Communicating in technical terms with non-technical people

Make yourself clearer, not dumber

Writing in technical terms to non-technical people is an important skill to practice. It is not easy though, that's why people resort to workarounds as dumbing down content or abusing of metaphors — or even refraining from sharing the information altogether.

I believe it's better for everyone if a software developer uses proper technical terms when communicating with non-technical people in a way they can understand it. People learn something new, there is less room for misunderstandings, and it makes future communication much easier once they learned it.

So, how to communicate effectively using technical terms?

Consider this sample sentence as part of an email to other departments that do not know what a CDN or an SSL certificate is. We are going to improve it step by step.

We are now using a global CDN provider, so we have an SSL-certified faster website.

From familiar to unfamiliar rule

Start a sentence and a paragraph with familiar concepts and words. Introduce the new, technical term later in the sentence or the paragraph.

In the sample sentence, the only relevant non-technical words are "faster website", so they must come first.

We now have a faster and SSL-certified website by using a global CDN provider.

Explicit rather than implicit

Don't use the technical words as they are an unimportant part of the sentence. It gives the impression that the reader should know that already, which is not what you want. You want to make it clear that you are saying something new to the reader.

In the sample sentence, the qualities "faster" and "SSL-certified" are receiving the same en passant treatment, as they were both of obvious meaning. You want to acknowledge that SSL is a technical term and give at least a small explanation about what it means — it makes the website more secure.

We now have a faster website, that is also more secure for having an SSL certificate by using a global CDN provider.

Give tips about your conclusion

Don't surprise the reader with new information. Make it clear from the beginning what you are going to say.

In the sample sentence, the conclusion is that we are using a CDN provider. It is a technical term that you want to keep at the end of the sentence, but the reader has no clue that this is the core message until they reach it. You want the reader to know what is the new thing you are communicating. It is basically an "improvement" to the website, so tell them that.

We improved the website to make it faster and more secure: we are now using a global CDN provider with an SSL certificate.

Explain new terms, but know how far you should go

Technology is a rabbit hole of knowledge. You don't know everything that happens from a user keystroke down to an integrated circuit's logic gate. You know part of the path, the non-technical person probably knows a smaller path. You want to push their knowledge further, but you can't cover all that there is to be known in one email. Choose carefully the point you want to make and the concepts you want to educate.

The sample sentence is now more organized and explaining the effects of the mentioned technologies, but the technical terms are still mysterious. A good idea is to adequately define the concepts in simple words, even if it makes the text longer. Both happen to be acronyms, so what if we expand it? CDN means Content Delivery Network. SSL means Secure Sockets Layer. The reader may have an intuition about CDN, but "sockets layer" will only add more complexity. I believe a good choice here is to expand CDN, but not SSL.

We improved the website to make it faster and more secure: we are now using a global CDN provider with an SSL certificate.

CDN is Content Delivery Network, and it is basically a network of servers around the world that we rent to deliver the content of our website. Our users will always access the servers closer to them, so the website will load faster - if compared with loading it from one single server for all over the world. The CDN provider also has an SSL certificate. SSL is a technology that encrypts the data when a computer is communicating with another. So we are minimizing the risk of a data breach when a user is accessing our web application.

Now, I made the text much longer. Is this desirable? This is basically a case-by-case choice you have to make. How much you want to educate the reader? How much you need to keep the reader focused and save their time?

It will always be a trade-off between the level of education and length of the text. I kept the first sentence untouched and separated in its own paragraph to give the reader a choice to stop reading while still getting the core message. But then added a more detailed explanation for the curious. I usually consider this a good compromise.