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.

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.