Top 6 tech comm trends for 2013

Flexibility in several dimensions is my tech comm mega-trend of the year, after mashing up the top 6 trends presented by Sarah O’Keefe and Bill Swallow in Scriptorium’s annual tech comm trends session. Head on over to Scriptorium’s site to watch a recording of the webcast and to read Sarah’s take on the trends she presented.

1. Velocity

Velocity is Sarah’s first trend which simply means that we tech comm’ers are expected to create, deliver and update content faster than before. Also gone are the days – or months – when localized documentation could be several weeks late.

If we are serious about this, we need to revamp our documentation processes. I agree with Sarah: A recent restructuring of documentation processes has sped up my throughput and made my estimations more predictable. So it has improved my productivity as a whole.

It’s also made me more flexible because my smaller task packages take less time before I finish with a deliverable. It used to take me 4 to 6 weeks to update a user manual, so interrupting this task for something more urgent was expensive because it further delayed the manual and also clogged up my pipeline. Now I take about 2 weeks for the same task which allows me greater flexibility in sequencing my tasks because I still have a chance to finish the manual by the end of the month, even if we decide that I first spend a week on something else. I could not have achieved this  flexibility without revamped processes to analyse and specify documentation and without a topic-based approach.

2. PDF is here to stay

Bill’s doesn’t see PDF go away any time soon, if only because it’s durable, controllable, reliable and downward compatible to that other durable format called print-on-paper. Google Docs might be a potential competitor, but Bill doesn’t see it making great advances on PDF in 2013.

As comments from the audience showed, there seems to be a lot of passion about the issue and some people can’t seem to wait to lay the last PDF to rest, finally. As a tech writer in semi-regulated industries, I know that I’ll be creating PDFs for my users for a looong time. It might not be a trend per se, but I agree with Bill that we haven’t seen the end of PDFs just yet.

3. Mobile requirements change technical communication

Mobile will be the big game-changer for tech comm this year, predicts Sarah. Requirements for mobile documentation mean that PDF will be one format of many – and maybe not the primary one in many cases. Other essential deliverable formats include HTML5 (for an online audience) and apps (for native or offline use).

The limited real estate of mobile devices requires more flexibility in how we structure and present documentation. Progressive disclosure can help us to integrate essential user assistance in labels or pop-ups. Beyond that, we need a strategy of what to disclose where and how to create a seamless and consistent user experience.

4. Mobile drives change

Similar to Sarah’s trend, Bill underscored the influence of mobile documentation. He emphasized the need for concise, no-frills content. Rather than jump on the progressive disclosure, Bill presented an alternative scenario: An “executive” device with the main product hooks up with a second, mobile device which presents the corresponding documentation. (I didn’t quite understand this point, I think Bill mentioned a second screen embedded in the primary device, but I’m not sure.)

5. Localization requirements increase

Bill sees the scope of localization expand as the need for translation no longer stops with external documentation. Increasingly, internal documents also need translations because corporations need to keep international teams afloat and cannot afford to lose traction due to vague or misunderstood communication.

This is also the reason why, economic advantages notwithstanding, machine translation hasn’t taken off yet. But a hybrid process seems promising in some areas where machine translations become useful and reliable after human editing. Enter flexibility as our audience now might also include far-flung colleagues – and our tasks might include editing text that’s been translated by robots.

6. Rethink content delivery

As we face diverse requirements for working at different speeds in more formats and for more diverse audiences, we need to be flexible and rethink what we deliver and how. With demands like these, pages of static contents are frequently not sufficient. Instead, users need more dynamic content and filters to customize the documentation to what they need at the moment.

Someone in the audience summed it up very well: “Think of content as a service, not a product.” To me that makes a lot of sense, because it emphasizes the recipient of that service and their situation over the static dead-on-arrival quality that comes with a tome of printed pages.

My summary

I think flexibility is a key ingredient in many of the trends Sarah and Bill discussed with the audience. The recent opportunity to reorganize how I create documentation has given me two kinds of confidence: I have a suitable process in place for now. And I can change processes and methods when I need to.

A secondary trend occurred to me as well: Thanks to Sarah’s spirited mc’ing by which she included the majority of audience questions and comments, this webcast felt a lot more communal than previous ones I have attended. It was almost like single-session, virtual mini-conference. And if industry leaders can bring us together outside of conference season, we can strengthen our networks and move our profession forwards – with just a little bit of flexibility.

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Recommended free tech comm webinars

If improving your tech comm skills was on your list of New Year’s resolutions, then chickening out just got a whole lot harder: There are (at least) 4 first-class webinars in the next 4 weeks, so you can attend them anywhere you have Internet – and they’re free, too!

Tech comm trends for 2013

Sarah O’Keefe‘s Scriptorium rings in her webinars this year with another instalment of annual trends, intermittently delivered as blog posts. I recommend this webinar on the strength of Scriptorium’s previous predictions: Even if they didn’t affect my job directly, I’ve found their trends thought-provoking and relevant.

To see how right they’ve been, check out my coverage of their trends for 2012, 2011 and 2010. My guess for this year is we’ll hear about documentation for mobile devices and more about the intersection of tech comm and content strategy.

The 2013 edition on Thursday, 17 January at 11 am EST / 5 pm CET will be special in two regards:

  • Scriptorium solicited nominations for trends on twitter last month.
  • The webinar will feature Bill Swallow as guest.

Given Sarah’s knack to sniff out industry trends and Bill’s penchant for lively discussion, this should be an excellent webinar.

Cognitive Design for User Assistance

Ray Gallon and I share a passion for exploring what makes tech comm tick: I’ve explored some of its cognitive foundations in my presentations “Pattern recognition for technical communicators” and “Addicted to meaning“. Now Adobe sponsors a series of 3 webinars where Ray talks about “Cognitive Design for User Assistance“:

  1. Users Become Learners
  2. Empowering User/Learners Through Cognitive Development
  3. Integrated Learning: Building Customer Loyalty

I’ve heard Ray give a condensed whirlwind tour of the same area in his presentation “The Hairball of Content” at TCUK12. I’ve found it very stimulating: Ray has a unique way to tie high-level concepts, such as cognitive development theory, to applicable guidelines and examples. I’m looking forward to seeing how tech comm can “help users learn principles that they can transfer from one use case to another” and how to get that to work using topic-based authoring and DITA structures.

The webinars are at 1pm EST / 7 pm CET on Tuesday, 15 January, Tuesday, 29 January, and Monday, 4 February.

Disclaimer

Neither Sarah nor Ray have promised me anything to plug their webinars – in fact, they don’t even know I’m doing it, but I trust they don’t mind… 🙂

tekom Danmark is off to a good start!

tekom Danmark, the Danish country group of Europe’s tech comm association, is off to a good start, thanks to good attendance and enthusiasm during the foundation event in Odense on 5 November.

Logo of tekom DenmarkThe afternoon combined official speeches with two presentations about topic-based authoring, each followed by a lively discussion. A get-together over dinner concluded the event in high spirits (and I don’t mean alcohol).

What does tekom Danmark do?

At 15:30, Per Sørensen, head of the Initiative Committee for tekom Danmark, kicked off the event that brought together around 40 technical communicators who represented a wide variety of industries and services from all across Denmark.

Michael Fritz, CEO of tekom (the German association), presented what tekom is and what it does. Denmark is not the first country group – there are already country groups in Switzerland, Italy, Romania and Turkey.

Holger Thater, a German tekom member based in Hamburg, will act as mentor to tekom Danmark. He explained specifically what tekom Danmark will be all about:

  • The general mission is what you would expect from a professional association: To provide networking opportunities, to facilitate exchange of knowledge, to offer training and qualification and to generally raise the profile of the profession.
  • To ensure that a tekom country group has a chance to succeed, it takes the explicit support of 10 tekom members in that country and a so-called initiative committee who works with tekom to found the country group and get it up and running.
  • tekom supports country groups by assigning a full-time employee who is the official liaison to tekom (Germany) and a country mentor who offers guidance and, let’s say: spiritual support.
  • tekom also offers a nascent country group an organizational framework of a start-up timeline and some budget with which to offer 4 events per year that are open to tekom country group members.
  • Interested parties are welcome to attend the events and can become a country group member for free during the first year.

After laying out the framework and procedures, Michael Fritz officially founded tekom Danmark.

Presentations and discussions

After a short break, I had the honor and pleasure to present one of the two sessions. I spoke about features and benefits of task orientation and topic-based authoring. As it turned out, aproximately half of the attendees actually use topic-based authoring, so I refocused my presentation.

Rather than going to great lengths about what topics are and how they work, I emphasised how the company I work for uses a DITA-derived information model to write topics. My presentation segued into a lively discussion about technical opportunities which our structure and our tools offer. Strategic opportunities and limitations also came up. I was glad to offer attendees a glimpse at processes and tools that work for us, and I’m happy to see that the comparison was engaging and enlightening to many.

Bo Brandt, a self-employed technical communications consultant, shared a case study where he accompanied a project from unstructured FrameMaker to Topic-based authoring with Arbortext. It was a perfect complement: His project emphasised translation more than our situation, and he had several interesting lessons and pitfalls to share. The tireless audience engaged Bo in questions about his strategy, tactics and tools.

A little before 19:00, we gathered for a group photograph, dinner and drinks. (Okay, so a little alcohol…)

What’s next?

Personally, I’m already looking forward to the next actions of tekom Danmark! Since I’m working for a Danish software company, tekom Danmark is almost like homecoming to a place I didn’t have until now. 🙂

A next event is not yet scheduled, but the idea is to move around Denmark, so look for events in København, Aalborg, Århus or the like. To keep us busy until the next event, we have already formed a tekom Danmark LinkedIn group which is moderated, but easy to join.

If you’re a technical communicator working in Denmark or if you are working with technical communicators in Denmark, I highly recommend that you join the LinkedIn group and check out tekom Danmark. It’s been great to spend an afternoon with such a diverse group of enthusiatic colleagues, and I think we’ve seen the beginning of a fruitful network!

Denmark gets a tech comm association again

tekom Danmark, the country chapter of Europe’s largest tech comm association tekom, will be founded on 5 November in Odense. If you are a technical communicator in Denmark – or even West-Sweden -, consider joining us for the public inaugural event. And even if you cannot make it on that day, join the tekom Danmark LinkedIn group to connect with other Danish tech comm’ers and keep up with association news.

Click to open invitation in PDF

Click to open invitation in PDF

I met Per Harbo Sørensen, Head of the Initiative Committee for tekom Danmark, at tekom last week. He told me that there is considerable interest in having a professional association in Denmark again, after the regional STC chapter folded several years ago.

tekom Danmark provides opportunities for networking and exchanging opinions and tips and tricks how global trends in technical communications affect professionals locally.

For technical communicators seeking professional recognition, tekom Danmark offers access to TC TrainNet, an international training and certification program for technical communication.

Agenda

The day’s agenda is a good mix of formal speeches, professional presentations and networking opportunities. So it should give everyone a good idea what tekom Danmark will be all about. For all the details, open the invitation in PDF.

Founding tekom Danmark
15:30 Welcome
15:40 Introduction to tekom (mission, tasks and goals)
16:10 Introduction to tekom Danmark
16:30 Formal foundation of tekom Danmark

Topic-Based Authoring (professional presentations)
16:45 Features and Benefits of Task Orientation and Topic-Based Authoring
17:25 From Unstructured FrameMaker to Topic-Based Authoring with Arbortext
18:00 Open discussion

Networking
18:30 Buffet

Event details

tekom Danmark Foundation Event

Monday, 5 November 2012, 15:30–18:30

Odin Havnepark
Lumbyvej 11
5000 Odense C
Room 1.13

– As a tech communicator who’s working for a Danish company and involved with tekom, I’m very excited to be part of this event! See you there! 🙂

Strategic Technical Communicator panel at tekom12

Marijana Prusina, Nicky Bleiel, Sarah O’Keefe and Dr. Tony Self pooled their experience in an interesting and versatile panel session about the more strategic aspects of our profession.

Marijana Prusina, Nicky Bleiel, Dr. Tony Self, and Sarah O'Keefe

The Strategic Tech Comm panel (photo thanks to Axel Regnet)

It was not so much a discussion as a fast-paced session of the experts sharing their thoughts on strategic issues and problems, so I’ll simply list some of the insights:

  • Domain knowledge for a certain industry (as opposed to general tech comm skills) can be a great asset that you can use to build a career on, but it’s not necessary to become an expert in any one domain.
  • To get a mandate or money from management, don’t argue in terms of quality, but rather in terms of cost: Show how improving documentation will either reduce cost or create additional revenue.
  • Freelancing can work well, but you will need some things which are less essential if you are employed:
    • Considerable project management skills – even if only for your own projects
    • A good network of satisfied customers, other people who know and like your work, and other freelancers with whom you can exchange tips and tricks – and maybe even projects if they’re better skilled to take them on or when you are busy.
    • A snappy definition of your core services, skills and profile.
  • To improve the reputation of tech comm and exert influence in your company, try these strategies:
    • Volunteer, if you can afford to, whether in a professional tech comm association or a standards committee.
    • Underpromise and overdeliver on your deliverables – and meet the deadlines you agree to.
    • Write a book – but be aware that you’ll mainly do it for marketing and influence: It’s a lot of work, and it won’t make you rich.
    • Be the advocate of users, who are satisfied, more productive and less costly to your tech support thanks to good documentation.
  • Take all the training that makes sense to you and that you can get. Don’t forget about domain skills and software-related skills, for example, for API documentation. When training, keep in mind your resumĂ© and what value you will add to your customers or your employer by adding a certain skill.

Scott Abel on Structured Content at TCUK12

Scott Abel delivered his keynote It’s All About Structure! Why Structured Content Is Increasingly Becoming A Necessity, Not An Option in his usual style: Provocative, but relevant, fun and fast-paced (though he said he was going to take it slow). He even channeled George Carlin’s routine on Stuff: “These are ‘MY Documents’, those are YOUR documents. Though I can see you were trying get to MY Documents…”

His style doesn’t translate well onto a web page, so I’ll restrict myself to his 9 reasons Why Structured Content Is Increasingly Becoming A Necessity:

  1. Structure formalizes content, so it can guide authors who need to make fewer decisions when writing it. It also guides readers who can find more easily where the relevant information is in the whole documentation structure or within a topic. And it guides computers which can extract relevant information automatically and reliably.
  2. Structure enhances usability by creating patterns that are easy to recognize and easy to navigate with confidence.
  3. Structure enables automatic delivery and syndication of content, for example, via twitter – and you’ll be surprised occasionally when and how other people syndicate your “stuff”.
  4. Structure supports single-sourcing which means you can efficiently publish content on several channels, whether it’s print or different online outputs, such as a web browser, an iPad or a smartphone.
  5. Structure can automate transactions, such as money transfers, whether they are embedded in other content or content items in their own right.
  6. Structure makes it easier to adapt content for localization and translation, because you can chunk content to re-use existing translations or to select parts that need not only be translated but localized to suit a local market.
  7. Structure allows you to select and present content dynamically. You can decide which content to offer on the fly and automatically, depending on user context, such as time and location.
  8. Structure allows you to move beyond persona-ized content. This is not a typo: Scott doesn’t really like personas. He thinks they are a poor approximation of someone who is not you which is no longer necessary. With structured content (and enough information about your users) you can personalize your content to suit them better than personas ever let you.
  9. Structure makes it much easier to filter and reuse content to suit particular variants, situations and users.

Ray Gallon’s Hairball of Content at TCUK12

Ray Gallon‘s session The Hairball of Content was a high-level tour de force where he argued that we technical communicators do much more than just technical writing. However, we rarely get credit for all the other work we do in tasks such as content strategy, user interface design, information architecture, etc.

Assisting the user

Our overarching task is to assist users by translating the functional thinking of engineers into something that users can act upon and experience. That means our content is not just in the documentation, but it’s also in the user interface, in the error messages, etc. So technical communications accompanies the complete design process – and we tech comm’ers need to be involved from day one.

If we take our role as the users’ advocate seriously, we need to tweak some of our dogmas a little to ensure that users get the maximum benefit.

Embedding fosters knowledge

Concepts as documentation content are not an end in itself, but they need to offer decision support to users. A concept should tell readers whether they are looking at the right tool or function at the right time. That means such conceptual information needs to be available right where it matters. Even if it means to give context with conceptual information inside a procedure topic, either in the introduction or even as a short sentence in the individual step.

Yes, such mixing of topic information goes against the rules of topic-based authoring, but it will actually help users: Offering such mixed information in context transforms the sheer information of how to do a task  (which is hard to remember) to knowledge of why and how to do a task (which is easier to remember.)

Context is everything

Ray said: “Context is everything” – which applies across the board:

  • User assistance needs to be available in the context of the user’s workflow. Embedding contextual information in layers, from GUI labels via tooltips to full-blown help topics, will support users accomplish their tasks faster and more easily without taking more of their attention than necessary.
  • Each piece of user assistance also needs to offer sufficient context to be meaningful and “learnable” for users: Only offering steps 1 through 5 in a procedure usually doesn’t offer enough context for users to actually learn how to use a product or a function, if we omit the “when” and the “why”.
  • User assistance also needs to offer enough context to allow users to navigate easily and with confidence through the product and the documentation. Specifically, we need to offer users an easy way back to where they’ve come from and a way back to the product and their task.

Offering successful user assistance isn’t a question of offering more at all costs, because more information isn’t necessarily better for the users. Instead, we need to stimulate cognitive demand, the will to know and learn, in the user by offering the right information at the right time.