Avoiding an extinction event

Sarah O'Keefe / Opinion22 Comments

The elimination of the distribution monopoly for content is upending the publishing industry and technical communication specifically.
The dominant players don’t quite know how to respond to the sudden destruction of their competitive advantage. Until now, they have been able to throw their weight around, and use their sheer size to get what they want. Sort of like this guy…

Tirannosaurus Rex

Unfortunately for them, their underlying assumptions–their evolutionary niche, if you like–are no longer valid. For tech comm, these assumptions include the following:

  • Technical writers are responsible for creating the vast majority of content.
  • When subject matter experts contribute content, the technical writers get to review, edit, and approve the content before publication.
  • Technical writers control what product information is available.
  • Technical writers will produce more and more multimedia content, such as videos.
  • Readers want huge PDF files or at least have no other alternatives.

Instead, we have the post-apocalyptic scenario where:

  • Search (and specifically Google search) rules the day. If it’s not searchable, it’s irrelevant.
  • The pace of publishing has accelerated, and any friction in the process produces unacceptable delays.
  • Nobody controls what product information is available.
  • Readers are increasingly using mobile devices and tablets and want small chunks of content.

Readers do not want huge PDFs. There is no longer the ability to manage information distribution. Readers are also engaging with content—leaving comments, writing a blog post that rejects the premise of the “official” content, and creating original content of wildly varying quality.

But the established publishing tool vendors are still stuck in the paradigm of the technical writer who has complete control over corporate documentation.

We do have dinosaur descendants on earth today, but they don’t bear much resemblance to Mr. T. Rex above. Will our publishing tools undergo a drastic evolution as well?


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.

22 Comments on “Avoiding an extinction event”

  1. Nobody wants to deliver content but everyone wants to use it. So I think one of the upcoming requirements for technical writers is not to pour anything that has been handed to them into any form of publication, but to create content themselves. More like hedging and nursing information and delivering when needed.

  2. What is really scary about this is that even the most progressive and well funded tech pubs groups are busy migrating to the latest generation of dinosaur tools and processes. Very few are even thinking about evolving into mammals.

    Neither writers nor vendors seem to be able to get their heads around the basic facts of the Web, which are that the selection and ordering of content belongs to the reader, not the writer, and that abundance and choice, not scarcity, are what readers want.

    There is still a desperate confidence in Tech Pubs that professional curation will win out in the end, and much energy is being expended on proclaiming this and trying to improve the tools and techniques of curation.

    I don’t think the way forward is really all that difficult to see or tough to implement — it is about creating content that is easy for the user to search, select, and curate on the Web. But adjusting the profession to that mindset remains a formidable challenge.

  3. I just got an email from a consultant working on a customer project – implementing our ERP software. They have asked for a copy of the “user guide” for the next version of our software.
    OK, they haven’t asked for a single large PDF, but the subject line did reference a CHM deliverable we used to produce. With such requests in the past, I have pointed the project staff to the online help, which most are using, but others just want the PDFs (which are a PDF publish from the help, we don’t put any particular effort into restructuring them as user guides). At a certain level, which may not be end-user level, we are getting a lot of good comments on the PDFs, especially for customers upgrading from our software releases of 5+ years ago.

    I’m really curious about this space, but I’m just not seeing the demand in our user base (yet?). Is it because B2B is different to B2C? How can you even have community generated content in a B2B space where there will be business process differences between customers that mean they use the software differently? How can the community generate content when we’ve only got a few customers using the latest versions?

    1. Hi Kirsty, I could definitely see a request for PDF rather than CHM because CHM is a huge PITA to print.

      Otherwise, lots of good questions that I don’t have immediate answers for. I just think that, over the long run, the model of monolithic deliverables is going away. What if each group of customers has their own (small) community, or wants the ability to customize and extend the product and the doc?

      1. There are definitely some who are customising the doco because their activities or business rules are unique to them, or have steps in their process that go beyond what our software covers. Most are looking at EPSS products for this, or will fit it into their overall corporate framework for docs/instructions, it seems.
        Some of our products might be appropriate for a community model, where the information shared wouldn’t be too sensitive. And maybe some of our large ERP customers would share content and update it, and I’m not predicting their future use very well. Some will be very limited in internet access (defence and remote mining customers especially – and by remote, I mean even places in first world countries where dialup speeds are fast).
        But in 10 or so years it could be a different landscape.

        1. >> I mean even places in first world countries where dialup speeds are fast

          Good examples being northern Canada, the fringes of Scandinavia, much of Russia, Alaska, rural parts of the western US and so on. There is a great deal of activity in some of these regions.

    2. Kristy,

      I think the key issue is, how can you have community content when your customers are direct competitors of each other, and therefore won’t share anything with each other. That is certainly true of some B2B products, but not of all. CMSs are a B2B product, for example, but the tech writers who use them do not regard other tech writers as competitors, and so will share with them. Thus these products do have community content on the web.

      But it is certainly true that not everything is going to the web. It is not all ocean. There will still be inland seas. The difference for the inland sea is that people’s expectations about how to search and navigate information will be formed by their experience on the ocean, even when they are on the inland sea — which is a problem, because search does not work nearly so well when it has less data to analyse.

      Interestingly, on the inland sea, people do tend to like thumping big PDFs, because they can search them. The PDF becomes a kind of micro-web. Why is this preferable to a CHM file, which is also a micro-web? As Sarah says, CHM is a pain to print. But also, I suspect, people are just more familiar with PDFs and their search facilities.

      And, of course, these changes in people’s information preferences and information seeking behavior are well underweigh, but not yet complete or ubiquitous.

    1. @Jacquie: Certainly, rearranging content in a way that every reader or user gets the most benefit out of it must be made easier: publishing to a wiki where each user can create their own space, for example. But nevertheless, even in the case of pinterest: someone had to take the pictures. Same goes for tech writing.
      On the user level I would love to have a common “data pool” where I can drop all household appliances’ information and quickly find which printer ink to order or batteries I need to replace. But someone had to deliver the content. That is still our job.
      Essentially, mammals have to live on the same stuff as dinosaurs did.

      1. Thomas, I never said we wouldn’t be writing content. But we’re past the point where we can expect to be the ONLY ones writing content. Content creation is essential, of course, and we’ll probably (hopefully) create the best content.

        My point is that content (no matter who creates it) needs to be able to be organized/accessed in a way that is meaningful to each individual user. I don’t insist on the Pinterest model, but it’s one other way of thinking about the problem.

        PDFs should be delivery format only: Once a person has the content they want gathered together in the order they need, they should have the option of creating PDF of it. To pre-package content in PDFs is…very limiting (although sometimes necessary for dinosaur orgs like government). And why are we trying to limit our users?

  4. Lots of good comments here. Yes, there is still a need for PDFs by some in the tech comm space but it’s where tech comm meets commercial comm where things get really interesting.

    The answer, for the technical communicator, is to evolve into a publishing paradigm that extends collaboration in all directions with the technical communicator becoming more of a manager/validator to make sure that the content available is concise, clear, and readable. The secondary job will become one of publishing the available information in other consumable forms. (Notice I said little about writing. :D)

  5. Wonderful article, I think you’ve composed a neat digest of the future of technical communication. I agree with you that the profession as we used to know it is on its way out.

  6. I agree; there’s a chasm between what we’re still doing and what we need to be doing to stay on top of tech trends. PDFs still have their place, but I don’t think they should be all we deliver. We’re working on ways to engage users via social networks, make content easier to find, and also easier to use. This is my favorite part of my job: re-inventing it!

  7. Everyone wants content, wants it now, and wants it correct. Instead of concentrating on creating content, perhaps we technical writers need to learn how to cultivate and curate content from users and other sources. Being able to surface and direct a user to the “right” content may be more important than being able to write a procedure.

    1. I agree with Steve. We are progressing from creating content towards curating available content . Those who can adapt will survive.

  8. I agree that the field is only now starting to adapt to changes that began some time ago with the proliferation of Internet access and the adoption of tendencies and habits that it promoted.

    That said, there is still nothing quite like a 400 page technical tome for stopping the occasional bouncing bullet, ferocious fang or Saracen scimitar. Not that it’s likely to happen, but you might work in more interesting places than most. Would a Kindle or mobile phone do the same? Would it raise your monitor? Get that survival fire going? There is still something about the feel of print on paper…

  9. “the feel of print on paper” is… heavy.
    Our users demand simple, stripped down, graphic- or (even better) video-based information that lets them accomplish a task and move on.
    Our users want exhaustive, comprehensive explanations of how our technology interfaces with their technology environment, and demand PDF so they can understand the linear development of concepts.
    Both are true statements where I work. Serving dinosaurs and fast-moving mammals equally, as long as they are customers.
    The *interesting* thing about customer needs is that new ones come along, but old ones rarely disappear!
    So, we find a path to “both, and…”

    1. Frank nailed it! Both statements are true for me as well, so I too, try to find a path to both. I take comfort in finding that I’m not alone. 🙂

  10. “Readers do not want huge PDFs.”

    Not huge PDFs, no… But the format of a printed document is appropriate for some uses. If I am going to be spending more than 10 minutes reading a single document, in general I prefer to print it out. I know the argument is that this is wasteful, but surely it’s a drop in the ocean compared to much office waste!

    When I print a document, it’s usually with a view to having it on my desk for several months – this seems a reasonable energy/benefit investment.

    “Readers are also engaging with content—leaving comments, writing a blog post that rejects the premise of the “official” content, and creating original content of wildly varying quality.”

    The “wildly varying quality” is the issue here – having to rely on bloggers and forums when the official documentation lets you down can be a frustrating experience. The content is unstructured; the context is not always clear; the first 3 or 4 links you click rarely give the information you need; and you end up with a list of browser bookmarks as long as your arm, each explaining a different topic.

    There’s no substitute for decent documentation by the people who provide the product!

  11. Frank:

    “Our users demand simple, stripped down, graphic- or (even better) video-based information that lets them accomplish a task and move on.”

    As a user of documentation (not just a writer of it!), I am not generally a fan of videos. I like to take in information at my own pace, be able to refer back to something that was mentioned previously, etc. I’m something of a daydreamer, and rarely recall anything from videos but a general impression of what was going on… OK, so maybe that’s my problem… but I am a user too and there must be others out there like me!

    I do like graphics though, although they can be pain to produce.

    1. Franz, just saw your comment. apparently my RSS does not consider comments a page update.
      I have the same reaction as you to video. But I am not my company’s users. And again, I have to satisfy “both, and.” Comprehensive and task-oriented, self-paced and small-chunk action-oriented.
      Ain’t it grand?

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