Shape the hype cycle with tech comm

You can use technical communication to accompany and even nudge technologies and products along the hype cycle.

The hype cycle

The hype cycle was invented by Gartner Research in 1995 and has since been underlying dozens of their reports. Here’s a schematic example:

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You can see how it tracks visibility and expectations of a technology across time in 5 stages, from the Technology Trigger up to the Peak of Inflated Expectations and down into the Trough of Disillusionment, then slowly up the Slope of Enlightenment, until it reaches the final Plateau of Productivity.

I think there a few remarkable things about the hype cycle:

  • Let’s get the obvious out of the way: It’s not a cycle at all, but a curve… 🙂
  • Different types of companies may engage in the cycle in different stages. That means the hype cycle is not some fate to be endured, but something that can shape corporate strategy – and by extension content strategy.
  • The hype cycle is not just for managers and marketeers. It speaks to our industries as well: Tech comm consultant Sarah O’Keefe started an article on “The Hidden Cost of DITA” with it in 2008 (that’s where I got the example above). And UX designer Ron George put one up on his blog last year.

Enter technical communication

So what does technical communications have to do with it?

We technical communicators provide the words around stuff on the curve. So we can put a spin on them, to a certain extent. I don’t think we can move a technology or a product into a totally different stage with documentation. But I believe we can mitigate adverse effects and nudge our subject along the curve a little.

There are two reasons why this works:

  • Technical communication is part of the hype cycle. Whether we take it into account or not, our documentation contributes to the item’s visibility, and it certainly shapes expectations on it.
  • Technical communication can be dynamic and agile. It is usually quite easy and fast to change the technical communication in contents, tone and spin to address a new use case, an additional persona or a different audience.

And there are several ways how you can use technical communication to influence the hype cycle:

  • It’s all about context. You know this already, if you’ve ever thought about personas, your audience and their situation when they are using your product. So take into account the hype cycle, especially that difficult phase into and out of the Trough of Disillusionment. “First contact” documentation such as quick starts are particularly suited to address inflated expectations and to offer a shortcut to the Plateau of Productivity.
  • Position yourself as the users’ advocate who accompanies them along the curve. Who is better suited to guide them up the Slope of Enlightenment than us technical communicators? Keep visibility of the product and its benefits up (to the limited extent that you can), and keep users’ expectations realistic.
  • Engage with the users. Hiking up a slope in silence is no fun. Find out what interests your users, what they try to do and where they want to go with the product, whether by soliciting feedback or user-generated contents. (But don’t forget to check back with your diligent product manager about the general direction…)

Your turn

What do you think? Should you, can you write with the hype cycle in mind? How can it affect the relationship between technical communications and marketing?