Technical Communication Poll: Will Wearable Computers Change Tech Comm?

technical communication poll - wearable computerThat contingent of Trekkies and Dr. Who Companions who account for a sizable proportion of the technical communications community surely must be in paradise at the thought of Google Glass and Apple iWatch going into production this year. We’re a geeky lot of futurists who have made a living explaining geeky to other people, and who look forward to talking about iPhones and Nexus tablets as “so passé.” The early-adopting consumer aspect notwithstanding, wearable computers could change everything about how we work as well as play. Or maybe not.  That’s what this week’s technical communication poll aims to find out.

When wearable computers grab the attention of Forbes Investing columnist Christopher Versace, it seems as if there might be something to it. “There has been no shortage of Internet chatter over a potential watch design from Apple dubbed the iWatch. Samsung has has confirmed that it is working on a smartwatch and the Pebble smartwatch is already in the market place. … The other new hardware design that is getting attention is glasses and for this we can thank Google (GOOG) and Google Glass. Now Google Glass differs somewhat from a smartphone in that it’s a new attempt to make wearable computing mainstream.”

As for the impending reality of the Star Trek computer in every household, Google has publicly committed to that vision of  the future of search. “Google has a single towering obsession: It wants to build the Star Trek computer,” says Farhad Manjoo in his April 11 piece in Slate. Manjoo goes into detail about how Google Voice Search and its Knowledge Graph initiative are part of this obsession.  Combine these with Google Glass and you have a wearable computer that can see, hear and predict what you want before you’ve even asked a question. So will wearable computers change tech comm?

Wikipedia describes wearable computing as featuring “a constant interaction between the computer and user.”  Whether it’s on your wrist, or wrapped around your head, wearable computers represent massive technology changes, which of course need to be described, scoped, tested and so forth. That’s the heart of what technical communicators do. But does it mean we change how we approach the tasks inherent in tech comm?  The need for clear, concise technical content will always be here. Writing specs is writing specs. So is developing user assistance or writing a good FAQ… right? Or is constant interaction a true paradigm shift in how we approach designing, creating and delivering content? If  technical communicators are integral to designing and managing the user experience, will the lines between customer support, product design and tech comm continue to blur?

Before 1984, very few people outside of the halls of research even knew what a computer mouse was.  Today we have a whole set of terms around manipulating  the computer interface precisely because of the mouse, and now the smart device. So while this question requests a pretty simple yes/no response, we want to start a conversation about it.  After you vote (or before if you’d like, we’re flexible about the sequence), take a few minutes to explain why you voted the way you did, either in the comment section below, or on a thread on the email discussion list.  If wearable computers won’t really change technical communications, why not?  On the other hand, if it really does change everything, what are some of the ways we’ll see our profession change?  In coming weeks, we’d love to use your commentary to investigate some new perspectives on tech comm, customer experience and content management. We invite you to share the poll with your social networks, and to join the conversation.

Do you believe that wearable computers will change the technical communication profession?

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Mark Baker

11 years ago

I think ubiquitous devices and ubiquitous connectivity are already changing techcomm profoundly. I’m just not seeing how wearable computers make that big of a difference to that. On my wrist vs. in my pocket? What’s the big upside? The revolution is in the network, not the devices. Tech comm is becoming a network activity. The real challenge is not to adapt to different screen sizes, but to adapt to working in the network. The network is an always-on world. Are we ready for always on tech comm?


11 years ago


While I agree that companies will need to have their information networked, we as technical communicators will also need to start looking at context sensitive help far more thoroughly. For instance, a mechanic who is working on a car or manufacturing a new car could be able to access a video on the install and then maybe have a step by step guide walk them through it using verbal cues when to move to the next steps.

As a guess, the difference between over my eyes and in my pocket is the expectation of the type of help – am I really going to go to my iPhone to ask how to make the repair? Maybe, but if it’s over my eyes and instantly accessible then yes we will. You’re right it’s about the network and the move from clunky tablets and phones to watches and glasses will increase the volume exponentially.

I’d expect that companies that figure out support via these new devices will grab (and keep) marketshare.


11 years ago

Something like Google Glass now means that hardware can get as small as possible, but the screen real estate is effectively infinite. No more problems squeezing War and Peace onto a screen the size of a wrist watch. Right now Google is thinking of this as an augment to the real world. The thing about so-called wearable tech is that it isn’t there to augment “reality” – it’s there to augment YOU.

It won’t be long before people see this as a replacement for every screen. I anticipate a WORK mode, where you get a work space that blocks out the external world to a larger degree… Much the way you’re expected to block it out when you work in an open-plan office. Maybe we’ll even get a “zoom” effect where we can set the degree of “concentration”, much like we all do anyway. I see no reason why we won’t get these hooked into current 2-D operating systems simply to reduce cost and footprint. And that’s just the beginning.

When OS’s and input devices catch up (remember the data glove?), we’ll have 3-D interactions, reaching behind a “window” to pull another one up front, tracking head movement to give a 360-degree work space, etc.. Think of REALLY adding a third dimension to your computer’s work area. Suddenly “work space” becomes an accurate description, not a euphemism. Not only do we get more screen real estate, but we get less land-fill as new models come out. And it will be easier to carry our computers onto budget flights! Groovy!

The point is, our data surfaces (and “spaces”) will no longer be limited by the size of the device. The limits will be cognitive, much like legibility imposes a limit on line length. The whole arcane art of designing apps for phones will flash in the pan and die.

OTOH, I don’t anticipate an end to text as an interface medium. The power of compressing human thought and experience into a small set of symbols that can be mixed according to (relatively) simple rules is just too great to live without. It brought us this far, and isn’t going away any time soon. So yes, we will still be writing, and people will still be reading. On the repair crew, you won’t suddenly see an explosion of videos to show repair steps. If you don’t know how to expand a one-liner into a set of actions, you’re fired — now and in the future. But automated diagnosis, real-time warnings, arranging the order and priority of the sets of procedures… That’s the kind of mix-n-match that will help the technician, and the kind of thing computerized text is really good at.

Read “Rainbows End” by Vernor Vinge…

Nicholas Klasovsky

11 years ago

Lord, save us from wearable computers. I can see it now, cars veering all over the road while people try to drive and use their Google Glasses at the same time. It is bad enough that people try to text and drive.

Won’t wearable computers will just further isolate people from each other? I don’t know how many times I’ve been sitting at my local watering hole watching young people walk in together, sit down, and immediately pull out their smart phones. They don’t talk to each other, they just stare down at their phones. Seems weird and inhuman.

As far as using a wearable computer for work, please don’t make me laugh. I work with two 23 inch flat screens now, and don’t always have enough screen space. Maybe someday we will be able to sit back and gaze into a 3D space where we can write and illustrate just by talking and waving our hands, but not today. For me, even smart phones are too small for anything but occasional and casual use. I use an iPad to surf the net from the comfort of my couch, but when it comes to serious work, there’s no replacement for a desktop computer and my flat screen monitors, the bigger the better.

Mark Baker

11 years ago

Maybe, but I’m not convinced yet. I am convinced, though, that the application is not for the mechanic or factory worker who is doing these tasks day after day and does not need instruction for every task, and can easily absorb instructions for the occasional unfamiliar task because they know the domain and the environment so well. The application, if there is one, is for the weekend warrior who wants to fix things themselves.

Situation aware tech comm that can project an overlay onto the work field might enable us to do far more repairs for ourselves. But socially we are going in the exact opposite direction. We are doing less and less for ourselves and relying more and more on specialists for any function outside our core skill set.

There may be applications for extreme situations where access to specialists is impossible — battlefields, arctic research stations, etc.

Of course, predicting acceptance of tech is really difficult. Virtual reality has been hyped for decades and has gone nowhere. 3D TV seems to have been a flash in the pan. Most of the hits we never see coming. Most of the things we see coming don’t become hits. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Danielle M. Villegas

11 years ago

I think it’s obvious that it will affect tech comm. We are still in the midst of getting technical communicators to fully understand how to write for mobile first with smartphones and tablets. Wearable items, such as Google Glass, makes it obvious that the strategy for writing for these devices. If one is walking down the street, he or she can’t browse the web the same way as even scrolling through a mobile app on a smartphone. These wearable devices will have to be more intuitive, and thus the tech writing needed for that will be crucial.

Tech Comm Poll: Will Wearable Computers Change ...

11 years ago

[…] With iWatch and Google Glass aiming to be in production in the near future, TechWhirl asks "will wearable computers change tech comm?" in this week's poll.  […]

Larry Kunz

11 years ago

First (a little before my time) came the printing press. Then personal computers. Then smartphones. Each one provided new formats for communicating, and communicators adapted to each one in turn. We’ll adapt to wearable computers as well. But I’m with Mark Baker. Fundamentally, technical communication won’t change any more than it already has.

I also don’t see much need – after the early-adopter stage, at least – for technical documentation ABOUT wearable computers. People simply won’t use them unless they’re about as intuitive as wristwatches and eyeglasses are today.

Mark Baker

11 years ago

Well, I hope technical communication will change a whole lot more than it has, though sometimes I don’t feel optimistic.

But I don’t think the change should be in the directions of writing for particular devices. I don’t want different content on different devices, because which device I am using is usually not related to what problem I am thinking about. Unless it is taking advantage of particular hardware on the device, like the camera, I don’t want device specific content.

But before we can even begin to talk about writing for devices, we have to make the more fundamental leap of writing for the Web, as I discussed in my User Advocate column this month:

Actually, let me restate my point about tech comm changing. Tech comm is changing. It has gone social, and it has gone to the Web. That’s the point of my column. The problem is, professional tech comm has not gone with it.

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