2011 predictions for technical communication

Sarah O'Keefe / Opinion18 Comments

Predictions time! First, let’s review the 2010 post: cloud-based authoring begins to replace desktop authoring, increased adoption of XML alongside more sophisticated justifications, social media, collaboration, important new terms (content strategy [yes!] and decision engine [huh?]).

I’m not sure why I thought “decision engine” was going to take off, because it didn’t. Onward to 2011…

A schism in tech comm

I see a growing gap between “traditional” technical writing (that is, creating help and manuals) and modern technical communication. For a technical communicator, the following skills are likely to be in high demand:

  • Content strategy and analytical skills
  • Screencasting and webcast design and production
  • XML-based authoring
  • Working in content management systems
  • Collaborative authoring and working with user communities

For continued career success, you need to be mastering these skills. I believe that writers who “just write” are going to find themselves marginalized. By contrast, the technical communicators who can plan and deliver information products that are perceived as relevant and valuable to the business will be quite successful.

The age of accountability

In 2011, we will see the rise of accountability in technical communication. I wrote about this in some detail earlier this year:

The transition from an artisanal, unique process to a more predictable manufacturing process introduces more accountability into the content creation process for writers because it’s easier to measure content quality. (Managing technical communicators in an XML environment, June 14, 2010)

Look for curation analytics as a key concept in this space—statistics such as which topics are most read, most commented on, and what information is not found in searches.

Increased focus on business value

The idea that technical communication is valuable to a business is certainly not new. What’s new is that this idea is starting to gain some traction outside of the tech comm community. I expect to see much more attention paid to business justifications and ROI arguments for tech comm initiatives.

This increased focus on business impact matches up nicely with globalization trends. In a world where you can choose to outsource and/or offshore technical communication, it’s important to understand the true cost of doing so. Technical communication, in general, has done a poor job of quantifying the impact of information products on a company.

Make-or-break time for authoring tools

[This prediction from Alan Pringle] There are many—perhaps too many—authoring tools on the market right now. Some tools are adapting to changes in technical communication better than others. I don’t think the market of technical communicators can continue to support such a crowded field of tools, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see acquisitions, mergers, or even sunsetting.

What are your predictions for 20101?

About the Author

Sarah O'Keefe


Content strategy consultant and founder of Scriptorium Publishing. Bilingual English-German, voracious reader, water sports, knitting, and college basketball (go Blue Devils!). Aversions to raw tomatoes, eggplant, and checked baggage.

18 Comments on “2011 predictions for technical communication”

  1. LOL!! Your last sentence… don’t ya mean 2011? 🙂

    FWIW, I’m thinking CMS and XML are going to continue to gain traction in 2011. And buzz words such as “content strategy” will become more widely used as tech comm folks insert themselves into other areas of the business (increasing their business justification). Content reuse across disparate groups should also continue to grow. And I do think globalization will become a more important aspect of what we do… we need to understand the process, how it works, and how to make it most efficient. Manually handling L10N is an archaic method, and that’s where a CMS will help.

  2. Wow — this is a great set of predictions, Sarah. I couldn’t agree more about the need for accountability and the need to focus on business value. I hope you’re right that the spotlight will turn to these issues in 2011.

    I also agree that writers who “just write” will find themselves marginalized, but until now I hadn’t thought in terms of a schism. However, I think the word you chose is apt. With Tom Johnson’s recent “Martin Luther” post in mind, maybe it’s time to come up with 95 theses and put them on someone’s door. (I’ll use Post-It notes — less messy than nails.)

  3. I think you are spot on Sarah. It may take awhile for the “schism” to reach all facets of the industry but it will happen. In the meantime jobs titles such as Content Strategist will continue to increase.

    As for the number of HATs, we can only wait and see. There is fierce competition between the main players that’s for sure. I’m more familiar with Adobe products and they really seem to pushing the boundaries of functionality, particularly into the areas mentioned in your post. I know they are not alone in this though. Interesting times.

  4. Hallo Sarah 🙂

    Good set of predictions! I particularly like your list of skills that will be in high demand (under the heading “A schism in tech comm”).

    Personally, I’m not so sure of the value of documentation in the form of videos and screencasts. But I think you’re spot on when you use the word “perceived” in this follow-up section:
    “..technical communicators who can plan and deliver information products that are perceived as relevant and valuable to the business…”

    To stay relevant, we need to look to the perceived value we add to the organisation, as well as to the value we ourselves know we add. 🙂 At the moment, videos and screencasts are popular in the business and management worlds even though a number of users get impatient with them, and they have obvious disadvantages for accessibility, search, and so on. For that reason, we need to be able to produce them and use them to their best advantage.

    Another trend may be that we will focus on going to where our readers are. This is just another way of expressing the “know your audience and their environment” rule. For example, if we’re documenting web apps and social media apps or if our audience lives in those apps, we should look at how we can use them in the documentation too.

    Cheers, Sarah

  5. Happy New Year, Sarah…

    I was doing a quick search on 2011 trends posts for tech comm, and this post was about the only one I could find. All great points, btw, and I think you are accurately envisioning the future of our field.

    I agree about the schism between old school technical communicators and new school ones, who fish where the fish are, so to speak, that is, as Sarah Maddox points out, they go to where our readers are…whether that’s social media, video, screencasts, and so on.

    I worry a bit about our professional identity, as I see the splintering of so many specializations, in a field that has always been splintered by different allegiances to tools. As the specializations in technical communication continue to splinter, how will we differentiate our skills from the other disciplines, offering similar services?

    I like seeing Tech Communicators banding together on Twitter, via the #tcchat sessions, for example, and wherever possible, supporting our cohesiveness as a profession, especially online, where we are most visible. I think Julie Norris’ idea about a group blog for technical communicators would help more with that solidarity, despite our different specializations, and help us support each other…

    All for now. Thanks for such an insightful post.


  6. As other folks have noted, I’ve not associated the word “schism” to the various technical communication camps of thought, but the word is indeed appropriate.

    What really caught my attention in this list was the concept of curation analytics. Although I’ve heard of using metrics to analyze where an online reader has been and of using a software application tool to gather feedback to capture the readers’ comments and improve online documentation, curation analytics encourages you to be more strategic when gathering information. Nice. I’m definitely going to do more research on this concept. Besides ReadWriteWeb (nice introductory article there), are there any other sources of information that you would recommend?

    Thank you for writing this list, Sarah, and for introducing me to new concepts!


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  8. So, is that list what a person coming out of a TC program (either undergraduate or graduate) needs to know to be a viable modern technical communicator?

    It’s a serious question. I was in a recent academic discussion that quickly fell into a “But they come to us not being able to write. That is what we have to teach them. Everything else is secondary.” That view can also be described as “writing is writing, the rest is just tools they can learn once they get a job”

    And no, I don’t believe either of those statements.

  9. @Michael: Writing is a prerequisite. There are lots of other skills required in this field once you have the foundational writing skill.

    In other words, writing ability is necessary but not sufficient.

    In looking for consultants, we have had a LOT of trouble finding people with the right skills. As a result, we have moved to an apprentice learning model. You can see our job posting here: http://www.scriptorium.com/about/careers/

    That might give you an idea of what we are looking for in an entry-level position. You can see that a person with rhetoric classes but no evidence of interest (or aptitude) with publishing technology isn’t going to get very far.

    You might also be interested in this article from our ex-intern (now consultant) Ryan Fulcher about his experiences here and in the academic world: http://www.scriptorium.com/2010/11/applied-tech-comm/

    (Note to interested parties: We are looking for an intern at the moment.)

  10. @Michael: It seems fair to say that writing (and logic and reasoning, basic math, etc.) should fall under the umbrella of general ed., rather than any kind of upper division or major curriculum. Writing-intensive classes within the major should be required, yes, but the very basics–expository writing or research writing or whatever you want to call it–should be taken care of early on. At any rate, it certainly shouldn’t be up to tech comm professors to teach students the bones of how to write. And there is a way to incorporate tools into classes on principles, e.g. I’m fairly certain students in accounting classes use spreadsheets, etc. Moreover, as for not teaching tools qua tools, I’m pretty sure that no one would want much to do with an accountant who didn’t know how to use a spreadsheet. At least I wouldn’t.

    Intelligence, curiosity, tenacity, perceptiveness–these should get you a job just about anywhere. Ironic that these traits just happen to be pretty much exactly what’s required of both writers and toolsmiths.

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  15. Hey Sarah,

    This post is amazing! I have to say that you are great!

    I would like if you put a translator on your Blog so that it can be easier for me, as I am not a native speaker.



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