Technical Communication in the Next Decade: Think “Adaptive” and Deliver “Multi-” (Adobe STC Pre-Conference Session Summary)

Networking at the Adobe booth at the STC Summit 2012 (photo by Maxwell Hoffman)

Recapping Adobe‘s Thought Leadership & Content Strategy STC Pre-conference Session

Somehow, I never really thought of a pre-conference session as one of those can’t-miss, full house events.  I am happy to rework my thinking after attending Adobe’s Thought Leadership & Content Strategy event that took place prior to the start of the STC Summit 2012 in Chicago.  The well-known leaders Adobe brought together spoke to a standing room only crowd (really!) on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead for technical communicators in the next decade. It was facilitated by Tom Aldous, Director of Business Development and Product Evangelism for Adobe Technical Communication.  While there were some differences of opinion and prediction, consensus revolved around one key phrase—Adaptive Content—and one prefix that can be attached to much of the technical communication strategy and tactics that will emerge over the next decade—Multi-.

Defining Adaptive Content

Adaptive content should display well on any device screen.

Ann Rockley, president of the Rockley Group got the session underway with her talk on “Developing an Adaptive Content Strategy.” According to Ann, adaptive content automatically adjusts to different environments and device capabilities to deliver the best possible customer experience, filtering and layering content for greater or lesser depth of detail. Adaptive content can:

  • Adjust to any device
  • Be displayed in any desired order
  • Respond to specific customer interactions
  • Change based on location
  • Integrate content from other sources

Construction workflow model for adaptive content

As device types and platforms continue to proliferate (mobile and eBook readers among others), the need for technical communication teams to build adaptive content strategy becomes critical. It needs to be built according to a defined structure, business rules, and processes to produce that customer experience whenever and wherever desired.  Rescaling visuals is only part of the solution, because the mobile experience is so different—page size, resolution, navigation, time spent, search approach and more. When asked about how adaptive content strategy fits with intelligent content, Ann suggested that an adaptive content strategy is supported in its execution by intelligent content, which is semantically rich (the structure has meaning), discoverable, reusable, and reconfigurable. It should eliminate double and triple work efforts of designing websites and mobile apps.

Multi-Device Technical Communication Content Development

Joe Welinske demonstrates help authoring for multi-screens (photo by Maxwell Hoffman)

So, if technical communicators need to create adaptive content strategy implemented using intelligent content approaches to support a wide array of device displays and environmental contexts, exactly how can you do that? Enter Joe Welinske of WritersUA—quite literally. Joe started his talk on “Multi-Screen Help Authoring – How to Deal the Explosion in Device Sizes” by walking into the room with a table displaying a number of different devices, which clearly illustrated the challenge of delivering user assistance today.

Joe pointed out that in addition to approximately one dozen desktop screen variants, technical communicators are faced with creating content for six iPhone and iPad screens and more than 3900 Android device displays.  Some are also working towards building user assistance for in-car systems, such as Ford’s Synch, and television screens up to 80 inches wide as more incorporate computer networking capabilities. He has been working with based   on designing interactions for multiple devices using what he calls “graceful adjustment” to match the amount and type of content to the device without needing to create separate solutions for each device.

Joe’s graceful adjustment approach to responsive design (which covers resizing the UI to fit the device) is related to adaptive content in that it takes into account device attributes such as screen resolution, UI elements, proprietary OS components, and the need for rapid interactions to “bucket” displays into general categories.  Designers then create a cascading style sheet (CSS) for each category of device, and tag all the objects accordingly.

Multiple cascading style sheets are available to apply to a single content source based on the result of the media query

The solution is “pure HTML5” and relies on the Media Query standard to identify the device type and display content according to the specific CSS. This approach combines the single-source content with intelligent handling of display to eliminate the nearly impossible challenge of optimizing content for more than 4,000 displays. His demo showed how the content of a single html page displayed on an iPad, iPhone, and laptop, among others, with some elements simply turned off to fit the user experience context of device type and immediate need.

Joe closed out his talk with a list of key requirements for authoring tools:

  • Native support for HTML5, CSS, and media queries
  • WYSIWYG view for HTML5 and CSS
  • Single source to customizable output
  • WYSIWYG conditional text using CSS selectors (such as touch interface)

Multi-Purposing to Manage Policy and Procedure Content

Lightext uses RoboHelp to multi-purpose their Policy and Procedure (P&P) content

One sub-specialty in technical communication that only now seems to be getting more “airplay” is that of policy and procedures (P&P), probably due to factors of globalization and merging of training/instructional design with technical communication activities. Beth Gerber and Pam Harrison of Lightext, Inc., have been working in tech comm on policy and procedures for years, and have begun expanding their business to include a training center and more offerings for training professionals who have P&P responsibilities. Their presentation “Multi-Purposing your Policy and Procedure Content for Today’s Enterprises” was a case study that walked us through using RoboHelp to develop and manage standard procedures, customized training, as well as other specialized output from the same source content.

Project analysis methodology used in P&P multi-purposing

Pam and Beth employ a project analysis methodology before building out a prototype for their clients. This ensures that they identify all the potential audiences, how the content will be used, how it is reviewed and how it will be maintained.  They look to build “sustainability” into P&P projects such as the one demonstrated, recognizing that long-term sustainability relies on user perceptions of the integrity of the content. The client in the case study, a mortgage servicing firm, faced challenges of maintaining accurate and current content. Lightext began to address part of this challenge by communicating very clearly that training content was accurate at the time of training, but the online help contained the most up-to-date content.  They developed three primary outputs: online help, leader guides, and participant guides, and built in filters and conditions to address content delivery for specialized situations such as auditor requests, or scripts to be used in the firm’s call center.


Predicting the Decade Ahead for Technical Communication

Tech luminaries at the Adobe Thought Leadership event at STC (L to R): Ann Rockley, Bernard Aschwanden, Joe Gollner, Ben Sloane, Matt Sullivan, Lynne Price, Neil Perlin and Joe Ganci (photo by Maxwell Hoffman)

Tom moderated the closing panel “The Decade Ahead: Opportunities and Challenges for Tech Comm Professionals” which could have seemed like an exercise in herding cats (akin to moderating the TechWhirl email discussion list!), but in fact was a friendly, energetic and entertaining debate between luminaries Ann Rockley, Bernard Aschwanden, Joe Gollner, Joseph Ganci, Lynne A. Price, Matt Sullivan, Ben Sloane and Neil Perlin.

Tom kicked off the panel discussion by asking how technical communicators can best position themselves to take advantage of the opportunities ahead. I was both glad and gratified to hear so much concurrence on the need to be a part of overall business decision-making, as Ann remarked “having ourselves invited to the table for business decisions from support to design.”  Bernard put it succinctly when he advised to “learn everything … and bring that value back to the organization.”

Joe Gollner pointed out that the technical communication toolkit is deep “and needed across the organization,” and that many organizations are beginning to recognize the expertise we have in content strategy and in leveraging automation. Ben remarked on how much of the content created is stored in repositories built on relational models.  He sees the need for managing this content in light of increasing regulation and the current “instant gratification” mindset as a key area for technical communicators.

Adobe Systems

Neil sees the opportunity for technical communicators to become strategic consultants in the organization based on a long history of finding workarounds, “making do” and figuring out development and distribution.  He also believes that best practices and standards are going to become even more important as this strategic role expands. Joe Ganci emphasized the importance of building prototypes to avoid rework, and avoiding “tools as religion.” He agreed that it’s important to “learn everything” but to become expert in a small number of areas.

Tom attempted to build a little controversy by suggesting that structured authoring and reuse will reduce the need for content creators.  It worked.  Ann pointed out that doing ROI on projects within organizations shows that cutting headcount doesn’t gain productivity, freeing headcount to work on additional projects is the real answer. Joe Gollner agreed using a real life example of a technical writer moving to multi-media development. Ben suggested avoiding public sector jobs for the near-term and to go for private sector opportunities, while Matt saw the demise of pre-print causing a shift to other jobs, in a cycle of technical writer>technical communicator>strategist>multi-channel producer.

View from the front of the room at the Adobe Thought Leadership event (photo by Maxwell Hoffman)

Lynne warned of the loss of knowledge in the profession—our goal should always be to make things easier to read, rather than mastering the latest tool to do so.

As technical communicators take advantage of the opportunities to expand and fulfill our roles in supporting great user experience, Joe Gollner pointed that it is easy for the organization to forget the content authors’ needs, and then forget the users’ needs so that the whole focus is on the system. So it’s incumbent upon the profession to develop, recommend and use methodologies that balance author and user needs with system requirements.  Ann concluded with some thoughts about how technical communicators help the organization adapt, and recognizing that everyone in the content lifecycle is a customer ensures that the content does what it needs to.

The concepts of adaptive content strategy and multi-everything—multi-screen authoring, multi-channel publishing, multi-purposing content, multi-media development, and so on—carried through to many of the STC Summit sessions. At TechWhirl, that means trends and themes, and at least a year of great new content and commentary on tools, approaches and methodologies across all of technical communication.


12 years ago

I’m surprised that nothing was said about social as a key strategy. It’s as if we’re trying to collectively ignore the fact that more and more businesses are taking advantage of their communities as emerging resources of self-help. I’m equally surprised that MindTouch TCS was not advertised here.

Thanks for a great summary/write up as I could not attend these events!

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