Predictions of world-ending cataclysms notwithstanding, 2012 is likely to be a year of massive change for technical communications. TechWhirl’s Trends for Technical Communicators in 2012 is a somewhat unscientific estimation on the direction of our profession. It was compiled by an exhaustive review of the TechWr-L email discussion list, other forums, relevant blogs and presentations by thought leaders from around the world (as we compile Tech Writer This Week and Tech Comm News) lightly seasoned with the experience of the editorial team.
While we don’t see 2012 as a revolutionary year (big changes, yes; true game changers, not likely), the things only early adopters and evangelists embraced a year or two ago are now shifting to mainstream. These are accelerated by some driving forces that are not exclusive to technical communications, such as mobile devices, lean organizations, customer-focused strategy and pervasive content.
Are these the only trends? Probably not, and the trends discussed here are by no means the only issues impacting technical communicators in the coming year, but the cloud, collaboration, curation, DITA, video, and user-generated content do deserve our attention as baby New Year becomes a child, teenager, adult and finally an old man.
Cloud-based Tech Comm Gets Real
Back in June we noted that “Tech Communications is moving to the Cloud–kinda”. Now, more vendors are launching Software as a Service (SaaS), or cloud-based solutions for technical communications, so the speed at which tech comm moves to the cloud will accelerate. Companies are looking for the lower total cost of ownership that subscription-based cloud services can provide. Many “traditional” such as MS Office have launched cloud versions, and leaders in technical communications-specific tools are quickly moving to the cloud. Author-it Software introduced its enterprise authoring platform in the cloud just a few weeks ago, and Adobe has been aggressively pursuing SaaS solutions such as Creative Cloud. Technical communicators who embrace and adopt cloud-based tools may be challenged initially by the lack of numerous alternatives and price points for subscriptions, but will also find opportunities to solve long-standing issues such as review bottle-necks, and reduced publication cycles.
Collaboration Changes the Tech Communications Function
Increased focus on collaboration, necessitated by huge demand for content, new technologies and accelerated product development lifecycles, means the technical communication workforce is undergoing a fundamental transformation. Geographically dispersed development teams, shorter time-to-market goals, and the user-centered focus require greater involvement by technical communicators in product development, project management, customer support and other operational areas. Expect to see an increasing number of applications and other tools to improve collaboration among teams and among departments. Greater collaboration also will continue to drive changes in the structure and location of technical communications functions within the organization. This presents new challenges, and new opportunities for technical communications professionals to chart unique career paths. [read Greg Larson’s The Foundation of Successful Collaboration]
Content Curation Helps Users Make Sense of Information
Technical communicators are uniquely qualified to play a major role in what became one of the big “buzzwords” of 2011—content curation. Continuous tsunamis of content wash over anyone with access to a device that can present it. As Lee Odden, who contributes to the blog Toprank, points out, “It’s no longer enough to provide fundamental features and benefits information about products and services to succeed competitively online.” Technical communicators have largely focused on communicating information to audiences in ways that allow them to use effectively, and have in effect been curating content coming from SMEs for many years. As the lines blur between traditional documentation, customer feedback and marketing and promotion, technical communicators have the opportunity to be active players in their employers content curation activities as part of overall communications strategy.
User Generated Content Makes a Splash
Another term continuing to increase its presence in technical communications is user-generated content. Social and online marketing experts quickly recognized the importance of reviews, recommendations and other story telling options to the brand of the company or product. Technical content is equally important to the brand, and technical communicators who monitor user communities. Twitter feeds played large roles at technical communications events such as the STC Summit and the LavaCon Conference last year, and usage within the community will only increase. Companies already entrenched in structured content will look for solutions that can transform content gleaned from the company’s Facebook pages, forums, and Twitter feeds and manage it as part of the overall technical communications strategy.
Video Tech Communication Rehearses Its Debut
YouTube ranks as the second most popular search tool behind its parent Google. Mobility and smart devices make it possible to download and view video more easily than ever before. At the tactical level, many technical communicators want to explore the use of video to provide useful, relevant procedural content, but have little background in the tools. The quality of video tech comm will improve slowly as technical communicators gain experience with the tools and methodologies, and technical communications strategists will focus increasingly on how this kind of communications fits within the organization’s overall plan for delivering content and a satisfactory user experience.
DITA on Every Doorstep?
Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) will continue to make inroads into the technical communications planning and delivery functions of more and more organizations, as the productivity gains from content reuse and on-the-fly documentation assembly are recognized. DITA v.1.2 incorporated new industry specializations (training and machinery) so expect to see more industries diving into DITA to manage their technical authoring and publishing requirements. And as DITA becomes more mainstream, expect commensurate increases in the number of technical communicators moving to the role of DITA consultants providing services to these organizations. [read Jacquie Samuels’ DITA Tips & Tricks]
On the Horizon: Sentiment Analysis and Micro listening
One trend emerging in the broader content management and content strategy arena has potential for technical communications as well.
There’s no question that customer feedback is crucial to the design of products and the documentation that supports them. While technical communications is only now ramping up on gathering and using customer feedback, other fields, including online marketing and political campaigns, have been working on the concept of and tools to perform sentiment analysis. Wikipedia defines sentiment analysis as “the application of natural language processing, computational linguistics, and text analytics to identify and extract subjective information in source materials.” In internet terms, sentiment analysis attempts to identify the meaning and emotions behind the words used in messages such as blog posts.
Alan Pringle of Scriptorium recently published a fascinating post on what software developers in President Obama’s campaign team referred to as “microlistening” to determine how comments and feedback can predict response to campaign messages. Aided by continuing advances in machine translation and text analytics, technical communicators should start looking for tools and ways to discover ways to predict, model and manage reputation and brand through their work. It may be microlistening, sentiment analysis or something else but the convergence of analysis tools, free flowing and public feedback on our work, and the ability to update our documentation in real time means that we can start working more proactively.
Integrated Technical Communications: Grabbing a Seat at the Table
Not so very long ago, creating helpful help and useful user guides seemed the pinnacle of most technical communicators’ aspirations because many organizations gave short shrift to any value beyond that narrow world. In a complex world full of lean companies focused on revenue generation, user manuals are no longer enough. Technical communications, like most other functions in today’s leaner, profit-focused companies, is expected to contribute to the bottom line and to the achievement of organizational goals.
More and more, we will see a need for an integrated technical communications (ITC) strategy, and proactive leaders to drive it. As we noted in our recent article on ITC, increasingly our roles and “our actions involve us in developing and influencing a great deal of customer interactions either directly (e.g., forums) or indirectly.” Fewer and fewer technical communicators have the single responsibility of creating procedural documentation. At the same time, more and more organizations are requiring that staff measure and report on the strategic value of technical communications activities. Creating and executing ITC strategies will help technical communications take its place at the management table.
Success and satisfaction in the technical communications field depends on many factors, including the ability to spot trends and use them to our and our organization’s advantage. Tech Comm professionals who do their homework on issues and trends like real-time and mobile content delivery; who build a business case for improved tools and technologies such as Cloud services and sentiment analysis; and who deliver quantifiable value to their employers will always be ahead of the trend for success.
What do you think? Did we hit on the big trends or miss a couple? Please take an extra moment so we can discuss in the comments.