Trends in technical communication 2010

Tech writers will branch out into related organizational and technological functions, according to the transcontinental webinar on “Technical Commmunication Trends for 2010 and Beyond“.

Sarah O’Keefe from Scriptorium, Ellis Pratt from Cherryleaf and Tony Self from HyperWrite gathered around a virtual crystal ball and shared six trends they’ve indentified.

I’ll summarize and comment on two of the trends that have resonated with me. The recording and slides are available on the web, so be sure to check out all six trends…

Shape an emotional user experience

Ellis sees that documentation will leave its detached attitude behind: Instead, it will be part of a more personable, emotional user experience that’s driven by mutual trust, community participation and brand loyalty. So documentation should be planned as part of a more holistic user experience. Look for docs going touchy-feely is what I was hearing.

I find that very fascinating and engaging – I’m just not sure I really see it. I’m all for making documentation trustworthy and engaging, to empower users and solicit their feedback. But unless you have somewhat homogenous user groups and know them very well, you might rub some of them the wrong way: What’s amiable to some is inappropriate to others.

Much also depends on context: If your product is hip, chime in with hip documentation, why not. But for many professional products, especially in regulated environments such as medicine or pharmacy, I’d rather play it straight to be taken seriously.

Include content curation

Sarah argues that documentation will include content curation, that is the evaluation, editing and incorporation of other people’s contents. As part of larger content strategy, tech writers get to deal with user-generated content and information by colleagues in a company where “everyone can write“. So in addition to producing content, tech writers also become gate-keepers, similar to a newspaper editor or a librarian.

Sarah added that you’ll still have to draw the line due to technology and regulations: You obviously can’t curate sources that are beyond your control (such as third-party blogs), and regulated industries may require you to keep official documentation and user contributions strictly separate.

I think Sarah’s hit on a good compromise between inviting community participation on the one hand, but retaining some (quality) control over the contents on the other hand. I believe such a curating role would make the available content more valuable by presenting it in context and by directing user attention – not unlike a museum curator does!

In fact, content curation is a good description for what I find myself doing frequently: Rather than creating contents from scratch, I collect and aggregate it, write up a nice label (like a wall text, so people know what they’re looking at) and in general make it presentable.

Your turn

What do you think? How do you see our role in the changing tech comm landscape? What does your crystal ball show? Please leave a comment.

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16 Responses

  1. Thanks Kai for the great feedback on the presentation.

    Making documentation more emotional doesn’t necessarily mean a more emotional tone. It can be the equivalent of the “surprise and delight” design you see built into cars and Apple’s products. I think the time, place and context you provide user assistance is probably more important than the tone.

    I agree there a limitations in fields where documentation’s primary purpose is safety and risk avoidance.

    It’s true this strategy requires you to have an excellent understanding of your customers, but I disagree brand loyalty can only be achieved with a homogenous user groups. Banks and retail businesses segment services to suit different customer profiles and personas, so couldn’t we do the same?

    My key point is, where companies have a strategy to create loyal customers through a better, more emotional, “customer experience”, then doesn’t it make sense for Tech Pubs to be congruent with that goal?

    • Thank you, Ellis, I realize that I had focused too much on the actual content, not on the integration with the whole user experience. So thank you for taking the time to clarify your point and helping me “get with the program”.

      I definitely agree with your key point that documentation should be an integral part of the overall corporate customer-facing attitude. I’ve seen many companies and writers who do too little of that yet.

  2. Kai, thanks for summarizing the Trends webinar for us. Ellis helped me see that technical communicators play a key role in engendering trust (for more, see http://bit.ly/9NT3qk).

    I agree with you that content curation is a major trend, and that Sarah summed it up very nicely.

    The other big trend that I see is a movement toward certification or credentialing on the part of technical writers, so that we can prove our value in an increasingly cost-conscious work environment.

    • Larry, thanks for linking to your take which further helped me to understand why Ellis’ point is so important.

      I’m based in Germany where the STC equivalent, the tekom, has been offering certifications for a while now (I think at least 2005), so I’m sort of on the sidelines on that issue and curious how it pans out…

      • Hi Kai,

        Do you really mean tekom offers certifications, or does it offer certificates? There’s a difference. Apparently, certification has something to do with walking away with an acronym after your name. This is what STC is going for with the certification effort right now.

      • Thanks, Ben, I did get the two mixed up: I’m fairly certain tekom offers certificates, so the STC is on to a different – and I would think: bigger – effort!

  3. Hello Kai –

    Thanks for sharing this information. It’s always good to look forward, especially in these times of great change. In addition to the items noted in your post, I’d like to add these thoughts:

    Devices

    – Mobile devices and smaller screens will impact writing style. I believe we’ll need to cut content more than we have in the past.

    – Touchscreens will and are already changing content delivery. Use of touchscreens is increasing with no signs of slowing down. The use of Flash will be limited. This will impact production of tutorials, which are currently Flash-based. Will you use video or Flash-based files?

    Real-time

    Like it or not, the world has changed to a need-it-immediately mentality. This will impact doc delivery and planning. I think that real-time requirements will have to be planned for and accommodated.

    Social media

    I believe that the use of Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to push information and build communities will only increase. Does that tie in to the emotional user experience trend noted above?

    Collaboration

    Collaboration both within the tech writing community and between users and businesses will only increase. I think that tech writers must discuss and share more, as there is so much happening so quickly. We can’t be all places at once.

    Processes

    With everything else changing, why not the processes as well? This is what I see in use or on the horizon:

    – Agile programming
    – Cloud computing and use of web-based apps such as online docs
    – Use of collaboration tools such as Google Wave

    I’ve discussed many of these topics on my blog (http://www.2morodocs.com); its focus is basically about trends. I recently published archive collections related to these items mentioned above – and to the content curation trend. I definitely agree with these thoughts, and also discussed them in my post “The Changing Role of Writers and Editors.”

    That’s all I can think of at the moment. Thanks for writing about trends. We have to try and keep up and share whatever we can. It’s all going so fast. Great times we live in –

    Thanks –

    • Thanks, Julie, for adding your trends! One of the challenges in dealing with trends such as collaboration and processes is that they actually aren’t new trends: While the scenarios at hand may change, I’ve seen problems with isolated efforts and poorly defined processes just about as long as I’ve been a tech writer.

      • Agreed. What I was thinking, though, is that are quite a few changes in play, much moreso than in the 20+ years I’ve been a tech writer. Social media is relatively new with regard to tech communication; it facilitates collaboration on a global level. This discussion is one example. I found your article through Twitter. In it, I discovered more ideas, and from someone across the world from me. I think that’s great. It would have been far more difficult for me to have such an opportunity not so long ago.

        With regard to processes, one major thought I had regards Agile programming. As this is a major shift in the software development process, I imagine it impacts documentation development as well in a big way. I should note that I haven’t worked in an Agile shop, but see it as an important shift to monitor. Perhaps there’s a writer out there that has worked in an Agile environment and can speak to that, or may have links about it. I think it’s something we need to know.

      • I did a presentation at the STC Summit about how new trends, specifically Agile and user-generated content (or “Web 2.0”), are changing the information development process. I’ve also written a series of articles, which you can find by clicking my name above.

        While the tried and true principles of good technical writing still apply, these trends (Agile in particular) force us to change the ways in which we do things. As a profession we haven’t yet come up with a set of best practices that everyone is comfortable with. I hope that there’ll be lots more discussion about the subject.

      • Julie, yes, social media, incl. blogs, have been of great benefit to me as well. I’d be a less versatile and probably a worse tech writer without them!

        Thanks, Larry (and Vishnu below), for your thoughts on Agile which is new to me as well…

  4. >I believe that the use of Twitter, Facebook, and blogs to push information and build communities will only increase. Does that tie in to the emotional user experience trend noted above?

    Yes – it’s creates/reinforces a sense of belonging or connection to the brand or product.

    It’s the exension of certain marketing strategies into the field of technical documentation.

  5. 1. I have worked in an Agile environment and I do not see any huge difference compared to the waterfall model and others. If the sprint lasts for about two weeks, writers may nor may not have much to document. This is because only “chunks” of functionality are being developed, rather than the whole. From a documentation perspective, the doc release is a partial one and never a complete one. If the product is a new one, then the doc released every fortnight is also not going to the customer.

    The challenge comes when a technical writer is working with multiple development teams. In such a scenario, there will be pressure to release multiple docs and more demands and pulls.

    2. Many companies do not allow direct interaction between writers and customers. How beneficial Web 2.0 and social media becomes needs further debate.

    3. Quality of documentation remains as a major issue, as more work is still being outsourced. There is a dearth of managers with excellent management and technical writing skills to guide juniors.

    4. Personally, I feel there is a need for a standard tool for technical publications, even if it is not possible. In developing nations, owning a home PC is still a dream for many. So, most of the learning, which includes experimenting with tools, is done at the workplace. Tools do matter when the writer is an individual contributor and companies do not provide enough time for an new writer to experiment.

    5. There is very little understanding of the technical writer’s role in the industry. Creating an awareness about what a technical writer does and the skill sets he or she brings is a major challenge. In India, recognition, acceptance, and acknowledgment of one’s career and job is a very serious matter.

    • Thanks, Vishnu, for your comments!

      1. Even if the productive work for us writers doesn’t seem much different in Agile, I would think our involvement may change: I guess we would benefit from tracking the dev process more closely.

      2. If we writers have little or no contact with users, user surveys become even more important to collect reliable and qualified feedback.

      3. I agree, many managers lack tech writing skills to guide junior or even novice writers. Alternative models, esp. mentoring between writers can make up for that, however.

  6. We need to think about building engaging communities around technical documentation. Lose the surveys. Understand your customers by engaging with them in a community whose genesis begins with documentation.

    BTW: The STC just created an accreditation program.

  7. Peg Mulligan summarizes all six trends of the webinar; check it out!

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