Jonathan Mitchener has written an article in Engineering and Technology magazine on the interest of technology providers in creating “ecosystems”. This is the concept of offering not just gadgets but also a range of related products and services, which can integrate seamlessly with each other in an overall system.
The poster boy for this ecosystem approach is Apple, which in recent years has introduced the iPod, iTunes and approved iPod accessories, as well as the iPhone and the iPhone App Store.
Each product and service improves the “user experience”, increases the overall sales and margins and creates a dominant market position. This means lots of people want to create similar ecosystems, and/or be part of a successful ecosystem.
So could this extend to technical authors? Could they contribute something that improves the “user experience”, increases the overall sales and margins and creates a dominant market position? Documentation is not something Apple is known to be good at providing, but you could argue documentation might play a part – in enabling users to make use of all of a product’s or system’s functionality.
However, for documentation to truly be a part of a ecosystem, then surely it needs to integrate seamlessly with other elements in the ecosystem as well?
Perceiving user documentation and online Help as a function of an ecosystem – interrelated products and services working seamlessly – might change the way in which technical authors approach the issue of creating user assistance. It could lead to organisations perceiving documentation not as a discrete “island”, but instead as something that needs to integrate with user documentation for other components of the ecosystem. It might also lead to more content being embedded into the systems themselves – through the use of embedded Help, for example.
I’m not aware of anyone who is explicitly using an “ecosystem view” of user documentation at the moment, but it could emerge in the future. Technologies such as XML, and DITA in particular, offer a way of creating documentation in a way that makes integration with other documents possible.
If more companies adopt the approach of creating an ecosystem, then technical authors will need to communicate their value in the context of this approach. They will have to ensure that what they produce is consistent with this approach, as well.