A Vision of 2013: Five Technical Communication Trends

2013 technical communication trends Now that we see 2012 in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to reset the GPS to identify and track the technical communication trends that will shape what we do and how we do it in 2013. We’ve compiled this list through our experience, by noting trends on our email discussion group, and by monitoring the community at large.

The Big Trends as we see them:

  • Excellent User Experience
  • Managing Mobile
  • Responsive Design
  • Technical Communication as a Brand Asset
  • Global to Local to Global

In 2013, technical communication professionals will be discussing, experimenting and producing work that impacts and is impacted by a set of major trends. Our list isn’t necessarily inclusive, but these are the “biggies” when it comes to technical communication trends. So even if you are producing primarily PDF manuals and online help, you should pay attention and take advantage of opportunities to immerse yourself in them.

Excellent User Experience

For years, many technical writers promoted their roles as user advocates and probably helped set the stage for this brave new world of User Experience (UX). More organizations recognize that UX requires multiple skill sets, but more importantly they see excellent UX as a critical business objective. Great UX case studies focus not only its collaborative nature (between writers, designers and developers, and between customers and company personnel) but also on the importance of creating a holistic, engaging and personal experience for every user. Expect to see a continuing increase in UX designer or specialist roles, which require a convergent set of skills from design, application development, and communication. Look for convergent tool solutions, such as MindTouch TCS, to continue making inroads into forward-thinking organizations, and emerging opportunities for technical communicators who can master the challenges of integrating documentation, training, product support, marketing, and customer service. There does seem to be potential for more glamorous job titles than plain old technical writer, and those of us who’ve worked in multiple disciplines over the course of our careers are starting to feel vindicated.

Managing a Mobile Worldview

We live in a device-dependent (some might even say addicted) world, where 24/7 connectivity is the new norm. In 2012, thought leaders in technical communications started serious, and almost constant, conversations on mobile—the mobile UX, producing mobile help, developing mobile apps. Don’t expect that to slow down in the least, with smart devices overtaking traditional desktops and laptops with extraordinary speed. As technical communicators get comfortable with the tools and techniques of producing effective user assistance on mobile (see responsive design below), we’ll also see a rise in focus on comprehensive approaches to designing for mobile, developing mobile products and supporting mobile users. As one of the big technical communication trends, managing the mobile paradigm means developing approaches that require collaboration between traditional R&D, tech pubs, marketing, and customer support organizations as well as the creation of new forms of marketing and product support via social media.

mobile-pc shipments

Worldwide Mobile PC Shipment Forecast (source: DisplaySearch.com)

The Plateau of Responsive Design

One of the hottest topics in technical communication and user experience is responsive design. Mobility and connectedness drove a lot of discussion across many design, strategy, and technical communication blogs on how best to do responsive design, and plenty of experts were out talking about how to make it happen, and the challenges of myriad operating systems, device types and screen sizes, including tool vendors such as Adobe and Madcap. Seminars and course work will continue in volume, while we start to consider how to standardize approaches across so many device choices. Responsive design should also start maturing as practitioners increase their understanding of how users interact with a variety of devices, both large and small. Look for some unexpected impacts on content delivery—turning a big-screen HD television into a monitor for activities previously confined to desktops presents as many challenges as designing for postage stamp screens. Creative approaches and collaboration with customer-facing departments are becoming more critical as organizations realize that customers have no patience for poor experience. Responsive Design also has implications for how to manage the convergence of application development with user experience and support.

Brand Asset and Business Mindset: Integrated Technical Communication Continues To Evolve

For years, a few voices in the technical communication wilderness preached various flavors of uniting technical communication and marketing. The whole concept ignited numerous huge debates on the TechWhirl email discussion list. Since proposing our concept of integrated technical communication back in November of 2011, we’ve found an increasing number of kindred spirits, including Mark Baker (Every Page is Page One), Jack Molisani (LavaCon) and Scott Abel (The Content Wrangler). We differ on some of the angles and approaches, but we all converge on the concept that technical communications as an insular function is doomed to extinction.

If we haven’t reached a tipping point, we soon will. Technical communication professionals need to sit at the grownups’ table because the functions and roles we represent are critical to the organization’s viability and growth. In 2013, we expect to see more on how technical communicators can and should take on more business tasks that it used to avoid. The hot topic of content marketing has many advocates in the technical communication field. A more strategic, holistic mindset about customers, products and profitability means that more and more technical communicators will take branding on board and collaborate with product development and marketing functions. Recognition of what technical communication brings to the grownups’ table should increase, and more of us should be proactive in building our business case. Our Marketing vs. Technical communication series back in 2012 shows the mindsets still have a way to go, but on the whole, global, mobile, and connected methods of doing business will require more openness and creative approaches to building long-term relationships with customers.

Global is Local is Global

Walking (well actually, racing) hand-in-hand with improving our business/marketing/branding mindset, globalization and localization will continue to have huge impacts on technical communication. Although it’s not an earth-shattering prediction, we see the focus on globalization and localization taking some new turns. If technical communicators become more involved with managing product and customer lifecycles while using new collaborative tools and methods to identify customers, test messaging, and manage after-purchase support, then by necessity globalization and localization planning will gain critical path status as the focus continues to be on staying closer to customers. Systems that technical communicators manage will have to integrate content translation into a larger set of processes to target and interact with customers in their native languages in ways that are culturally aware, while still managing “typical” content creation, review, and production processes. Many of the large translation and content management and delivery vendors are taking those steps now, and we expect best practices to emerge that can help even the smallest organizations take advantage of global perspectives on local markets.

Summarizing Technical Communication Trends

Keep an eye on a few technology-specific trends that might appear to be just science fiction now, but will at some point impact technical communication, user experience, and content management:

  • 3D Printing: No longer just an idea, 3D printing is arriving, particularly in manufacturing. Recent articles on 3D printing of biological tissues, and working firearms should give us pause, but expect this one to continue to make inroads in all levels of society.
  • Gesture control systems: despite the huge volume of smart devices now out there, vast quantities of perfectly serviceable desktops and laptops remain. Gesture control systems such as the Leap device bridge the gap by bringing gestures to the desktop (or laptop). The language of user support will move solidly to a new generation where pinch and swipe are as common as click and drag.
  • Neural interfaces: Advances in prosthetics, among other areas, are pushing the frontiers of neural interfaces.  It won’t be an everyday consumer item for quite a while yet, but direct connections to the brain will ultimately change almost everything about what we do as communicators.
  • Predictive and Sentiment Analytics:  Nate Silver brought predictive analytics into the mainstream during the most recent US presidential election cycle, but the use of analytic tools to predict consumer behavior and manage the customer experience is still in the realm of organizations with very large R&D budgets. Technical communicators need to start paying attention to analytic tools to stay ahead of the curve and continue to drive communication strategy.

In the meantime, the interplay between the big trends of 2013  presents tremendous opportunity for technical communication professionals. User experience, continuous mobility, content creation and production as a brand asset, and globalization all require skill sets that we have (or can easily acquire) and will result in a shift towards being business problem solvers, and collaborating effectively with professionals from a whole range disciplines. All this gives us a lot to look forward to in the new year.

What trends do you see taking center stage in 2013? We invite you to post a comment, and start a discussion on how technical communication will evolve in the new year.

Other Commentary on 2013

Here are a few posts from around the web with some takes on emerging technical communication trends in 2013:

Connie Giordano

Connie Giordano is a partner in INKtopia Limited and editor of TechWhirl's Tech Writer Today online magazine. She has been a list member and contributor since the days when 14,400 baud was high speed communications, and Windows 95 was state-of-the-art.

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