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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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! 🙂

Leah Guren’s Fish Tale at TCUK12

After opening remarks by conference organizer David Farbey, Leah Guren‘s keynote relevant and entertaining keynote address presented several lessons from the animal world:  A Fish Tale: Improve your Career by Watching Fish!

  1. Take a leap of faith – like salmon. It simply takes some guts and a little bit of faith that tech comm is here to stay, else you won’t be able to make a long-term plan and get behind it.
  2. Stay in school for better chances of survival – once you took that leap, keep honing your skills, keep developing. There are lots of ways and many don’t require the same amount of time and money as going to a conference, whether it’s e-zines, forums, user groups or webinars (some excellent ones are actually free!) Be sure to make your professional development part of your regular work schedule.
  3. Invest in better PR – the difference between a carp and coi is mainly the prize tag – which is thanks to better PR for the coi. Communicate your value that you bring to the company and to its customers. We know how much words matter, so we can do better than calling ourselves technical writers. “Information architects”, “content strategists”, even “technical comunicators” can make more money.
  4. Find the right stress – (sorry, I forgot how this related to fish… 😉 ) Tackle your fears, get a new challenge and pick the kind of stress where you’re still in control, feel stimulated and can grow.
  5. Active swim in a larger pond – because like a carp you will grow (professionally) in relation to the size of your “pond”. Find opportunities for growth how you can be the expert in your environment.

I’m sure I forgot a couple of Leah’s lessons. Nevertheless, I want to add an additional lesson that I’ve found important: Know the secret of the birds. That means know how your enemies tick, so they don’t eat you. Or if they’re not threatening: Seek heroes outside of your immediate field. Sure, you won’t be able to fly like a bird, but you can still find birds inspiring.

How tekom crowdsources conference programming

The German tech comm association tekom has found an innovative way to involve its members in conference programming: They invited 15 tech comm practitioners for a workshop on 25 July to discuss the status quo of software documentation with best practices and challenges. The collected issues and topics will go into the “Software Documentation Forum”, a 1-day stream with 7 sessions at this year’s tekom conference in October. (I was lucky enough to participate, and I blog on my own account; tekom’s view and position may differ.)

The event was by invite which helped to ensure that a wide variety of technical communicators were present, from the software departments of industrial companies (whose employees make up the majority of tekom’s membership) to pure software companies, from small companies with a lone writer to very large corporations which have hundreds of technical communicators worldwide.

Common challenges

The workshop started with a short round of introductions, followed by a round of 10-minute presentations where participants addressed these issues:

  • Specific demands on software documentation in your company
  • Best practices that have proven successful
  • Current technological, organizational and economic challenges
  • The future of software documentation in your opinion
  • How do you improve the value of software documentation in your company
  • How can tekom help to improve the value of software documentation

As the presentations proceeded, common topics emerged. For example, several participants face the need to keep tech comm effective, efficient and consistent as processes become globalized. Some work in teams that are distributed across several countries. Others have writers far away from developers and engineers. Others reported difficulties to find writers with sufficient language skills.

In my opinion, the variety of participants was an advantage. Our backgrounds are different enough to represent a well-rounded spectrum of issues and practices. Yet we are similar enough so our experiences resonate with at least some of the other participants. One participant even uses the software of another participant – and had a few comments about its documentation…

Joint programming

After lunch, we went into solution mode to see how tekom can support software technical communicators – and specifically which sessions at the tekom conference in October can address the issues and challenges we raised.

Here are some of the issues we’ve collected that we would want to see at tekom. Much of this is still pending and depends on whether tekom can find people to speak or discuss the issues, so there might be all kinds of changes before the following hits the official conference program:

  • How tech comm processes change when you move from a waterfall process model to agile processes
  • Integrating tech comm with GUI design for a better user experience (a similar issue appeared as “progressive disclosure” in a talk at the STC Summit in Chicago)
  • When to apply DITA and when not to
  • Norms and legal regulations in software documentation
  • How globalization affects tech comm processes and quality

Crowdsourcing benefits

I think the workshop was a great success thanks to its good preparation and well-defined goals. And I think it will turn into a worthwhile series of sessions at the conference.

For me personally, it was very good to connect and network with the German software tech comm professionals, with lots of exchanges and networking. I even felt some of the excitement and buzz that I get at actual conferences. So I think we have good reasons to look forward to tekom12. 🙂

Top 5 reasons I look forward to the STC12 Summit

I’ll be going to my first STC Summit in a couple of weeks and I’m already really excited about it. Here are my top 5 reasons and motivations:

1. Learn about new trends

The obvious reason to attend a conference: Many of the 80 sessions cover new industry trends – or at least topics that are new to me. We’re currently implementing a new HAT which brings a a lot of opportunities and some challenges, so I’m looking forward to:

2. Find inspiration and solutions

The sometimes unexpected benefit: At previous conferences, I frequently got ideas about improving a broken process or solving an irritating problem, even if that was not the main focus of a session. Such insights might come from an aside comment or something I see on a slide that inspires me to connect the dots. That’s why I’m looking forward to:

3. Present my own session

A highlight for will be Pattern Recognition for Technical Communicators!

My STC Summit speaker button

I’ll be on Wednesday morning at 8:30. I know that’ll be difficult after Tuesday’s banquet and whatever after-hours may transpire. But it’s actually a very good time!

  • A good time for you, because you can ease into the last day with an entertaining session that gives you a different, thought-provoking perspective on what you do anyway.
  • A good time for me, because I can get a feel for the conference on Monday and Tuesday and then get it out of the way firsrt thing on Wednesday. So I hope to see you there!

The conference program

After teasing you about several interesting sessions, here’s the complete conference program:

  • In a website, sortable by track, time, speaker or session code
  • In PDF, sorted by day and time, with session codes and titles only
  • In Excel 97-2003, sorted by day and time, with titles and main presenter

The first two are the official resources from the summit website, the spreadsheet is from me. All three are current as of May 6, but only the first one will be up to date in case of changes (an updated PDF may have a different link…). To be on the safe side, check the official summit website. – Now back to the reasons…

4. Meet old friends, make new friends

The pleasant side effect also called “networking”: As much as I enjoy social media as a virtual lifeline to stay in touch with the techcomm community, nothing beats meeting in person over a beer once or twice a year. So I’m looking forward to meeting speakers and delegates, tweeps and blog readers!

5. See Chicago

The tourist bit: I know Chicago a little bit from when I went to UW Madison in the 1990s. But I haven’t been in a while, and I’m especially looking forward to visiting the Art Institute and the new Modern Wing – or at least new to me. 🙂

6. Shop around for help authoring tools

Your bonus reason. The company I work for is not in the market right now for a new tool, but maybe you are. With more than 50 product and service providers exhibiting, you’ll have an excellent chance to see a lot of products up close and compare them closely. It’s a little like meeting friends: Nothing beats a first hands-on experience, and it’s a lot less daunting when you don’t have to install a trial version and click your way around. Vendor exhibitions at conferences were essential for us when we were choosing our tool.

7. Deep dish pizza

The gourmet reason. Thanks to Larry Kunz for the reminder, see his comment below. I was quite fond of Pizzeria Uno in my Madison days…

– If I forgot a reason to go to a conference, please share it below. If you’re attending the STC Summit, I hope to meet you in Chicago!

Summing up Scriptorium’s tech comm experts webcast

In Scriptorium’s “Ask the experts” webcast on 17 April 2012, Sarah O’Keefe, Nicky Bleiel and Tony Self reflected on frequently asked questions and trends. Here’s a timed play-by-play synopsis, so you can access the bits in the recording that interest you.

I try to provide teasers, not spoilers, so scoot right over to Scriptorium’s blog and check out the meaty answers for yourself!

FAQs

The panel starts with the questions they hear most often, from the underlying architecture via the tools to the deliverables.

5:46 – What is the best help/XML/CMS tool to use?

Tony tackles this first question. While there is no clear, short answer, Tony sums up some criteria which can guide your choice to selecting a system that works for you.

9:20 & 14:20 – What should we be delivering?

Nicky hears this one frequently – and often the underlying sentiment is: “So many outputs, so little time.” Again, there’s no simple answer that suits everyone, but Nicky outlines how to make an appropriate decision. And once you throw single sourcing in the mix, you’ve likely got a scenario that works for you. (They go back to this question after the next one, that’s why there are two timestamps!)

11:54 – Should we implement DITA/XML?

Sarah has several answers for this question: Showing an ROI is tricky, but most compelling – and it is more likely in some scenarios than others. The strategic aspect of making your content future-proof helps, but it may not be sufficient for your business case.

Hot topics

Next up are some more or less controversial questions:

18:50 – Should we use a wiki for documentation?

The experts chime in with several perspectives that can help you make a decision. Tony thinks it can be a valid format for many use cases, Sarah cautions of the very different processes a wiki brings.

25:10 – Content strategy: Is it a fad or fab?

The experts’ answers focus on what content strategy actually means for technical communications, from “we’ve basically been doing it for years” to embracing it as part of our profession’s maturing process to new job roles and titles.

30:30 – The tech comm career: Is it awful or awesome?

This one is interesting: The experts see both, the glass half empty AND half full. The consensus is that the role for technical communicators is changing, and fast, so there are challenges and opportunities to those who adopt.

Audience participation time

For the last round, the webinar audience submits some questions for scrutiny:

37:50 – Can tech comm be complex when products get ever simpler?

The panel is not ready to dumb down documentation at all costs. Complexity may be warranted depending on the products and audience expectations.

42:15 – Is agile good or bad for tech comm?

Agile can be good for tech comm, when it’s implemented well. Tony also points out that agile may give technical communicators a stronger role in the development process.

45:55 – Can product specs be turned into docs with a single edit?

It’s hard to tell without knowing the details. But probably not.

How to disrupt techcomm in your organization?

If you need to “disrupt” your tech comm content, I believe it’s more beneficial to integrate content across the organization than just to get tech comm to become more business-oriented or more like marketing.

The idea comes out of a worthy new collaborative project Sarah O’Keefe launched last week, Content Strategy 101: Transform Technical Content into a Business Asset. (This blog post is based on a couple of comments I’ve left on the site.)

Tech comm goes to business school

A recurring discussion is that tech comm needs to be more business-like to be justifiable in the future, not only on this blog but also elsewhere. Proponents of this view definitely have a point, if only because tech comm is often seen as a cost center and finds it hard to claim a return on investment.

I think, however, that this view is detrimental to all involved parties:

  • Tech comm risks to abandon its benefits to users and quality standards in an attempt to be “more like marketing”.
  • Managers may risk permanent damage to the documentation of their product without solving the bigger problem.

Breaking down all silos

The bigger problem often is that most content production is inefficient – because it occurs in parallel silos. Many companies have gotten good at making their core business more efficient. But they often neglect secondary production of content which remains inefficient and fragmented.

I’ve seen several companies where marketing, technical communications and training (to name just three areas) waste time and money. Due to inefficient, silo’ed processes, tools and objectives, they create similar, overlapping content:

  • Marketing and tech comm create and maintain separate content to explain the benefits of a product.
  • Tech comm and training write separate instruction procedures for manuals and training materials.

Once companies wake up to these redundancies, all content-producing units will face pressure to streamline content and make it easier to produce and reuse. This will revolutionize corporate content production and publishing.

Quo vadis, technical communicators?

I think this issue raises two questions for technical communicators.

The strategic question is:

Which kind of content disruption is more beneficial for the organisation and for customers: Folding tech comm into marketing or integrating all content with a corporate content strategy?

The answer depends on several issues, among them:

The tactical question is:

What’s the role of technical communicators in this content disruption: Are they the movers or the movees? Are they shaping the strategy or following suit?

The answer again depends on several issues:

  • What is your personality, clout and position in the organization?
  • Which team has the most mature content and processes to be a candidate to lead any kind of strategic change in content?

I think tech comm can lead a content strategy, especially if and when the tech comm team knows more about content than marketing or training or other content producers.