Where do the new trends and ideas in technical communication come from?


Sometimes we hear Technical Authors complain that the Help Authoring Tool vendors are not innovative enough. We believe that’s an unfair criticism, and that it’s unrealistic to expect the vendors to lead changes in technical communication. The new trends and ideas in technical communication need to come from other places.

We have moved away from Microsoft defining the universally accepted standard for online Help and the Help Authoring Tool vendors working within this framework. With no dominant leader defining the future for User Assistance, making small incremental changes is a less riskier option for the vendors. It’s safer to implement an idea that been proven to work and has been accepted by the technical communications community, than trying to make a major change and hope everyone will adopt it.

So where else will we see new trends and ideas emerging? Does technical communication innovation happen in the same was as it does in science (often in waves of rapid revolution)? Is it like the fashion industry (where ideas from a few leaders in couture work their way down to everyday clothing)? Or is there some secret body that’s making the decisions in the shadows for everyone?

Some trends emerge through the creation of new standards. For example, there is a British Standard for creating user documentation in an Agile environment, and there are emerging HTML 5 standards for web-based content. However, it can take a long time for standards to go through all the various approval processes, and standards are not always accepted universally.

Another route is by Technical Communicators looking at the innovations carried out by different individual documentation teams and identifying common themes. You can sometimes spot these trends by watching presentations at conferences.

A few Technical Authors seek out and publicise trends and new ideas through articles and blogs. If a number of different bloggers pick up on a similar theme, it may be a sign of a new consensus emerging.

More controversially, you will see technical documentation that breaks the rules and goes against the accepted best practice. Often, these are created by non-professional Technical Authors, who are unaware of any standards and use their instinct instead. In most cases, the result is a train wreck, but occasionally the end result is something that is innovative. In this situation, Technical Authors need to have the courage to question best practice and check it is still valid.

One approach that is often overlooked is to look outside of the technical communication community and seek ideas from other professions. Developers of e-learning courses and user interface designers face similar challenges to Technical Authors, so perhaps we can learn from them? For example, if new approaches are developed to encourage users to use e-learning content, could they also work for technical documentation?

What do you think? If we’ve missed any other places where the new trends and ideas in technical communication come from, then please use the comment box below to let us know.

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