Ten trends in technical communication for 2010 and beyond

Happy New Year! Let’s take the opportunity to look forward into 2010 and beyond. Here are, in no particular order, ten predictions to consider. As we’ve talked about some of these on our blog before, we’ve included links to these earlier posts.

1. The battle between the “Engineering” and “Craft” schools of thought within technical communication will come to some sort of resolution

Let’s start with a brief description of what we mean by “craft” and “engineering”:

The “writing as a craft” school emphasises the need to deliver creative, innovative and perfect products. They are often “hand-crafted”, individually created, one-off solutions.

  • Pros: Often more suited to customers’ needs.
  • Cons: Often costly and time consuming.

The “writing as engineering” school emphasises the need to create efficient processes. They are more automated solutions.

  • Pros: Productive, predictable, efficient.
  • Cons: Deliverables may not suit customers’ needs. The resources needed to set up the process at the beginning.

It seems that one school comes into vogue and then the other. However, we think we’re likely to see a situation where more content is written and stored in reusable formats (engineering), which can be used in more innovative ways (craft).

2. The rise of content analysis

We talked about content analysis in previous posts, and its growth rises partly from our first, fourth and fifth trends – the move toward taking content that already exists and doing more (and better things) with it.

3. More Web-based content and Web Analytics

For many people, particularly those under 30, if information is not on the Web, it doesn’t exist. So it’s inevitable we’ll see more and more technical documentation being published on the Web. We may even see the end of Help files, as such: it’s likely they will be seen as locally stored versions of Web pages.

The value of technical documentation has been extremely difficult to measure. Web Analytics offers the ability to measure the effectiveness of the deliverables in new ways.

4. The rise of User Generated Content and the networked manual

By networked content, we mean integrating content that resides on other web sites. The Semantic Web and other Web technologies will allow us to draw in relevant content from elsewhere. So perhaps we’ll see the emergence of collections of open source content (“content assets” or “process assets”) that technical authors can draw upon when they are writing.

5. More collaborative and conversational authoring

We’ve talked a lot this year about integrating original content and commentaries on content from both in-house Subject Matter Experts and end users. See our previous posts on user generated content.

6. Better searching and navigation

The Semantic Web offers the promise of better filtered, contextual content. We’ll see tag clouds and multiple navigational routes (through categorisation) become commonplace in technical documentation.

In the past, we’ve predicted the rise of folksonomies. However, these haven’t been taken up as much as we expected. We’ve also talked about Information Types – where content and navigation routes are filtered, depending on the type of user. Microsoft’s plans for Information Types, promised in Windows Vista, are unlikely to ever see the light of day. Having said that, many Technical Authors do provide filtered content today, using technologies such as Dynamic HTML, CSS and conditional build tags (which enable the production of multiple versions of the same document set).

7. Greater use of multimedia

There’s not much to say about this, apart from saying the benefits of screencasts and videos seem to outweigh the downsides (it getting out of date quickly, localisation issues, searching limitations etc).

8. The return of specialised job functions

This idea originates from Tony Self of HyperWrite: Technical publishing in the 1960s and 1970s comprised a number of specialised job roles: writer, typesetter, illustrator etc. The increased use of XML and other Web technologies will lead to greater scope and greater complexity. This means we’re likely to see more specialisation (particularly around publishing XML content) in job roles and the outsourcing of certain specialist tasks (like the old days of computer bureaux).

However, we’re also likely to see the emergence of hybrid roles (part author, part Web developer), as well as content analysis/wrangler opportunities – taking a top down view on how content can be synthesised into user documentation.

9. More location based content

This is most likely to be in the sense of “projected content” (that is content projected using Pico projectors) and Augmented Reality (see also our latest post on Augmented Reality).

10. Innovation will bring User Assistance back in to fashion

Economic recessions often are times of great innovation. This also may mean the need to introduce new and unusual concepts to users. We’re likely to see a need to explain these concepts, plus a need to provide advice on what makes a good choice.

We’re also likely to see innovations in technical communication. There is still the risk these new deliverables will be developed by non-technical authors, so the profession still needs to promote its value to the business. It’s possible technical authors will also be able to draw on the developments that will emerge from the Education, Design and Support sectors. The Education sector is facing similar issues, and we should see new ways in which training and education is delivered.

What did we miss?

In previous articles on future trends, we’ve discussed embedded and guided Help. Emerging Web technologies (e.g. HTML 5 and XML) offer greater scope for these, but the problem often lies in the lack of available space on the computer screen and, more importantly, the lack of foresight to include these at the planning stage of the User Interface design.

Time will tell if we’ve got this right or wrong. What do you think?

20 thoughts on “Ten trends in technical communication for 2010 and beyond

  1. Ellis, thanks for a very thorough and thought-provoking list.

    The only additional trend I can think of is the need for technical communicators to prove their value in a world where technical writing, per se, is becoming cheaper. As a profession we’ll get better at explaining how we can help the bottom line; as individuals we’ll seek to differentiate ourselves by obtaining credentials. (It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out if your #8, specialized job functions, comes to pass.)

    See my article on the trends I see for technical communication in the 2010s.

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  4. Ah, you’ve got me intrigued with the trends post, thanks! I think that we’ll see a blurring of the lines between support sites and doc sites, like what Red Gate is doing at http://www.red-gate.com/supportcenter/. Look for social support communities that help companies weave community- and user-generated doc in with the company’s official doc. Full disclosure and hoping not to plug inappropriately, but I think people want to know – I’m advising LugIron and writing blog entries and tweets for them, so follow the LugIron updates on blog.lugiron.com or @LugIron on Twitter if you want to learn more about social support communities.

    I think the social support trend ties in with both providing value and innovation in tech doc.

  5. Hi Ellis,
    As always, you have insightful view of the future. I read your list a number of times before evaluating the trends against my real world activities as a technical communicator. My interest is how trends are driven. For example, budget, innovation and popularity. Each has some form of human intervention due to the need of decision making.

    As both a content producer and user, I find we are moving towards a rock-scissor-paper analogy in techncial communication. Each media has its own quality and strengths to beat the opposition; when using the right strategy.

  6. I’m just starting a freelance career. How do you see this affecting freelance tech writers? I’m a team of one, and I don’t currently know a lot about some of these new trends.

  7. How do you see this affecting freelance tech writers?
    Off the top of my head: You might need to develop specialist skills. There may be more pure writing gigs (information structuring is done by someone else). There may be opportunities to be a moderator or curator for user generated content. You’re more likely to be part of a team than be working alone.

  8. As usual Anne is spot on. Ellis your list is very insightful and Anne highlights one trend that I also believe will become more important. We are already seeing Support Desks and Technical Writing teams coming under the same management and better collaboration between the two.

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  10. Hi Ellis,

    I think we’re moving from Technical Writing to real Technical Communications, i.e. technical content delivered thru video.

    Google is now able to tag information (i.e. keywords) inside videos. Think about this. The problem in the past was the if you created a video, there was no TOC or index to search for the relevant information. But once this circle is squared you can start to create videos of, for example, how to install an app. Cisco is doing a great job in this area.

    I’d also echo Larry comment’s the ‘technical writers’ need to find a way to differentiate themselves. Over here in China, they’re producing 5 million graduates every year… and they’re highly motivated, multi-lingual and very competitive.

    If you’re in tech docs for the next 10 years or so, you need to take a long term view. Where can I add value?

    What field should I focus on? Where are my energies best spent?

    Ivan

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  13. With all due respect to the experts who have posted their opinions here, predictions remain as predictions. Except for a handful of companies, the generation and delivery of content remain the same. The good old PDF and online help still rules.

    Moreover, it is doubtful how much information can be made public over the Web for domains such as finance and banking. It will not be that good to publish info about these software on the web. In a majority of cases, the customer support wing takes over post-installation issues, and the linkage between the issues and the documentation is never tracked. Technical communication is the least common denominator in many companies and proposals for innovations are the last item on the agenda, whether it is structured authoring or web analytics.

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  15. PDF – great, Online Help – great when it works!
    Sadly .CHM files can not be run out of SharePoint sites safely, becasue they pose a big security risk, which means in an enterprise using SharePoint either as a portal, or as a managed knowledge share or repository interface, CHM is a no no, managing numerous HTML files as generated by any online help tool becomes problematic becasue the user can see them.

  16. I have been a techncial writer for over 30 years and still going. I started on a typewriter. Sadly, I have seen it all. My work has been published for decades and has little shelf life as technology makes most of it out of date in 2 yrs. You all seem to focus on the medium and not the story. How well you coomunicate is the primary goal not the medium. I have not been successful for this long without being a great communicator. I have seen tyewiters, compugraphics tyepsetters, software lanquages, and other writers all fall by the wayside and yet here I am. I am a passionate writer. These skills are necessary, sure. I have seen people driving single source to push their own agendas, to cut others out and guarantee their position and control, where it hurts the client who does not need a sledge hammer when a tap will do. Rememeber to be loyal to your virtues, strive to be a better writer, be passionate and you will succeed over time.

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