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March 25, 2011

Webcast: Trends in technical communication, 2011

In this webcast, Nicky Bleiel of ComponentOne and I discuss trends for tech comm in the upcoming year.

The color commentary provided by the audience was excellent. I’ve captured many (but not all) of the comments below. I did some light editing (typo fixes) and made sure that all comments were thoroughly anonymized.

Trend 1: Word is the new black

This trend from Nicky got a lot of heated reaction, including the following:

  • Much as I depise it, I’ll probably need to go back to Word because my output is shifting away from PDF. Miserable, rotten product. I’ve been using Frame since version 2.1.
  • For small documents we customize in my training department, Word is good because all the customers have it.
  • Word is not stable when it comes to huge documents. Even the latest one does not fix the issue.
  • I use Word currently, but for shorter documents. Formerly I worked on longer products on FrameMaker. I have noticed that Word does not always “play” well with larger documents.
  • Not long docs, though.
  • The professional uses the right tool at the right time. Word is absolutely the right tool for some doc projects.
  • You use whatever your client wants you to use – I’m freelancing and dislike Word for manuals intensely but I work in it all the time.
  • Is the use of Word a factor of trying to reach out to departments that don’t our niche tools to solicit collaboration?
  • Word will live forever no matter what we think.
  • Work has a bad habit of reformatting my formatting. It’s annoying.
  • My clients don’t care what tool I use, as long as I can deliver a PDF. Rarely use Word these days.
  • Wow. word? You must be kidding. They cannot be serious tech writers because I don’t think any tech writer would agree to go back to word.
  • I work in an engineering environment without a staff of writers. Whatever is used has to work with Word. I am working toward content management, single source editing, probably using AuthorIt, but it has to to work with all those others.
  • I’m not sure I agree that Word fits well with Agile.
  • Composing a complex document in Word is horrendous!!!

I’ll give the last word to this classic:

  • Word is E-V-I-L!

Trend 2: The age of accountability

My thoughts on accountability were less controversial:

  • I’ll back this if for no other reason than I find the strategic aspects to be more interesting.
  • Metrics is THE buzzword, especially for annual employee evaluation time. On that note, I’ve embarked on a Six Sigma project to identify and baseline ‘better’ metrics for user education/tech writing
  • Any suggestions for good products for or approaches to metrics/analytics? (Nicky mentioned
  • I have found many writers “stubborn” refusing to accept change…
  • Value isn’t so much hands on document to document, but rather system of information management
  • Proving value has always been part of the business. New wrinkle is providing metrics.
  • How do you measure metrics for content re-use?
  • Yes, this is my #1 task. Can you recommend books/articles that cover this? If you have a new CMS, what kinds of metrics are best to prove ROI to execs?

Two questions on metrics for content reuse. If you have a content management system, you should be able to extract metrics from it. Another possibility is your translation workflow. You can use the translation matches as a proxy for content reuse. (It’s not quite right because you might be getting matches from the previous localization pass, but it’s better than nothing.)

You should not be developing metrics for your CMS after the fact. Metrics and ROI should have been in your initial business case. That said, if you are pursuing increased reuse, then measure reuse.

Trend 3: SharePoint as a CMS

Many participants on this webcast were already familiar with SharePoint, and they had a lot of opinions about it!

  • SharePoint exemplifies the innovator’s dilemma. They are nibbling at the low end. But they can nibble their way all the way up.
  • I would not manage source files in SharePoint, but I would manage PDF reviews there.
  • My info sources respond to my PDF drafts with comments in the PDF
  • I love its ease of use and flexibility, but SharePoint was not designed as a content management system for large pubs departments. It’s okay for smaller groups.
  • I am currently unemployed and looking from work. Jobs I see are requiring, for example, admin SharePoint skills and tech writing skills.
  • Our company is getting SharePoint but I have not researched how it can be used for tech writing (software documentation)
  • We use Sharepoint in the org but NO way would we ever use it for Documentation. It is unreliable and chunky
  • We have a big issue with SharePoint, people have portals for their teams or projects, users have to hop from portal to portal to get their needs. We need end to end, search the whole thing, GET THE ONE AND ONLY CORRECT ANSWER.
  • Need to be able to drill lower than the file level to access content.
  • When will it actually become a CMS?
  • Our organization uses Perforce for content management and SharePoint for sharing across teams but not the final version of anything. It’s great for performing shared reviews.
  • Get that answer easily no matter where it is. My company is document centric. People capture documents in email sharing, store them, and keep them on their pseudo-bookshelf to have them assembled. Then, the copies get out of synch with each other, which results in errors and problems with procedures that have to be correct and thus big costs. We are working big time to beat that problem, and SharePoint diversity doesn’t help. A document server with stable URL regardless of filename change or location move does help.

Trend 4: Schism in tech comm?

My schism in tech comm trend got a lot of attention. Most participants actually agreed that there is a growing gap between authors who create books and help only and modern technical communicators, who take a more sophisticated, business-oriented approach to their assignments.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Schism? More like total fractionation.
  • We have total fractionation in my department…
  • You’re responsible for managing your own career.
  • I think with teams being reduced, the writers who can carry any task are the ones who can survive…
  • We see the schism as an evolution, but we recognize the change in mindset that will be required to cross the divide.
  • I have to do the writing, research, graphics, and provide as many one-stop skills as possible.
  • I think it goes back to analyzing value—the powers that be can see more value with the modern technical communications than with the traditional technical writing.
  • I have been hearing that a lot of companies are moving to outsourcing documentation since it is not that important anyway. I have even run into that attitude at my previous position.
  • I guess I’m part of the traditional group. I’m a lone writer. I try to learn lots of things on my own (on content strategy for instance) but my company doesn’t let me experiment that much
  • I’ve met several ‘traditional’ TC’s who have learned a trade and are unwilling to have to re-learn it to move over to ‘modern’ tech coms. Some of them are not finding work.
  • Our company has content strategy, screencasting, XML, content management, and even online help responsibilities divided up across several depts. Frustrating because I’m pigeonholed into books (because I write) and the other depts hold on to their tech comm responsibilities with an iron fist. I would love to branch out … maybe time to look for a new job, ha ha
  • We have been dying to branch out into more modern technologies but we are very restricted by our clients who really resist and want their PDFs
  • The future lies in whatever potential clients ask for. So far, very, very few RFPs coming my way for “modern.” Many more for “traditional.” I’m interested in “modern” but can’t make money with it.
  • In some organizations, being more collaborative is an uphill battle.
  • I think software development is leading in the area of the schism.
  • I think you will be more employable in the future if you know how to do it all and the better paid will be the more modern tech comm, which personally, I like.

As part of the schism, I mentioned more collaborative authoring and user community involvement in documentation:

  • Agree about community being a big trend
  • My department is staffed at 25%, so I’m looking forward to crowdsourcing to help with my 4-year backlog. I’ll happily curate.
  • My company is betting on search.

Trend 5: Tripane help is here to stay

Nicky’s tripane help got some more strong reactions:

  • I’m seeing a move toward more in-line and in-app help instead of docs. Really good UI = less need for “formal” docs.
  • Disagree about the need for traditional help with good embedded help.
  • Are future users going to use the tripane or web help documentation or go search for info?
  • May go back to the question of accountability and are users using the help docs.
  • Eclipse Help/Infocenter is picking up. The best part of this help is that it can be launched on any operating system. Not to end here, the same set of files can be uploaded to a server and everyone who has a access to the server can navigate help topics using browser.
  • Users want more to help them perform a task. They want quick solutions—videos, tutorials, structured content.
  • My company wants me to explore user assistance features that they can ship with the product. I currently work on 5 different UA features, beyond writing manuals.
  • Totally agree. We use Flare and it has nice tripane help and we also use “mini-TOCs.” Seems to work well and our users like it.
  • They are going to expect to see information on the page instead of getting lost in the web-help search
  • Tripane help is fine for more complex UIs. But what about embedded user assistance for things like Flex apps, iPad apps, etc.? Tripane is not the only game in town.
  • Local tripane help does not work in Chrome
  • Isn’t tri-pane help just a result of inertia, we produce it because we always have and because traditional HATs don’t provide an alternative?
  • Tri-pane help is short sighted. Traditionally it has overlooked the needs of those requiring true accessibility and screen readers. Tri-pane help needs to evolve! What writers TRULY need is help that can build with the search and indexability but truly encompas accessibility standards
  • I like tripane, manager does, it is strange to many
  • Not sure tripanes work in mobile and tripane sometimes can add to confusion to help by presenting too many alternatives to the content currently in view.

Trend 6: Cloud-based tech comm

My discussion of cloud-based tech comm also led to some fascinating responses:

  • The cloud is scary but, as you suggest, we’re going there because it’s cheap. Even a cloud inside a network has serious advantages for the owner. For us, the advantage is that we can use browser tools as auxiliaries for developers to contribute to writing and editing.
  • In industries for which security is paramount, the clouds willl have to be hosted internally. We’re in that situation, and the defense and banking industries are notorious for prohibiting Internet access.
  • I just heard about a defense department group that can’t use Frame10 because they aren’t connected to the public Internet to activate it
  • Servers go down all the time. Our “”internally-hosted”” server, located in Europe, has been unavailable for 2 weeks.
  • Broadly agree for private clouds. Not sure we’ll see this for public clouds (e.g., Amazon) any time soon.
  • Some cloud-based apps have off-line modes, which are useful.
  • Strange to hear that some users dont have Internet access
  • Though in principal I agree that this is a huge trend, the security for software development is a concern. Especially for unreleased software.
  • Cloud as you have defined it is very definitely the way. Sort of down on Wikis as I’ve seen them used. Need to get to the one right answer, or conditional variations, directly and easily – and not hop around forum threads YUK
  • Main problem with cloud-based tech comm tools is the inability to work when not connected to the net.
  • With the rise of satellite ISPs, the concern about being cut off lessens.
  • If Google decides to get into tech comm support, all bets are off…. Cloud-based will become the norm.
  • Google Docs has been growing as a tech comm tool for non-production purposes.
  • Latency and security are major concerns of course.
  • How can I answer clients who worry about security of cloud-based systems? Not just against hackers/industrial espionage, but the risk that a specific cloud app will disappear?

Other trends

I asked for additional trends from the audience, and got an earful. (Well, eyeful. It was via text chat.) Here are the highlights:

  • STC becoming less relevant as more and more information is available for free from the web.
  • The trend in my group is to move from a company-created web-based review tool to shared PDF review developed by Adobe.
  • Comics, videos, podcasting and screencasting for technical communication
  • Content for mobile devices
  • Software craftsmanship
  • Natural user interfaces (NUIs) and Web 3.0