Four Key Technical Communication Trends for 2015

463742985In this guest blog, David Farbey, a Fellow of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC), looks at the upcoming trends that he thinks will influence the field of technical communications this year.

Making predictions can be a treacherous game and recent advances in consumer and cloud technology have shown that you can never know what’s coming next. The extensive use of mobile technology wasn’t predicted by anyone and its incredible popularity has had far-reaching effects. Its arrival changed the world of technical communications. We now have to make sure content is available for tablet and smartphone users, as well as for users of desktop and laptop computers. As technical communicators, one of the first trends we need to be aware of for 2015 is the growing importance of responsive design and adaptive content.

Trend One: Responsive Design and Adaptive Content

Responsive design means that we must ensure that the content displayed on our web page appears correctly on whatever device our reader happens to be using. At a basic level, responsive design can be achieved by web programmers using a ‘media query’ element in their CSS. Technical communicators should ensure that the need for responsive design is considered and should check that the resulting pages actually appear as intended.

While the success of responsive design can be judged by objective criteria – either the page displays correctly on a smartphone or it doesn’t – adaptive content is much more subjective. The technical communicator needs to make sure that the content they are delivering makes sense for the reader in whatever context it is being read. This is far more challenging. It would be wrong to assume that just because a page is being read on a tablet, the reader is only interested in some options and not others. The need for research into what users actually want to do has never been greater.

This means that the technical communicator needs to be involved in a great deal of planning before any content is actually written. If content needs to be delivered in multiple languages, then the technical communicator needs to consider the best strategy for localization as well.

Trend Two: Augmented Reality and Wearable Technology

At the Technical Communication UK Conference (TCUK) in September 2014, one vendor demonstrated how intelligent information can be obtained when a smartphone camera is used. Software installed on the smartphone recognizes the camera image and overlays it with hotspots that can be activated to display relevant information. This is a form of “augmented reality”, where a technological device enhances your interaction with a physical device and is becoming more and more widespread. Technical communicators need to be deeply involved in planning and developing content for augmented reality applications. Typically, augmented reality content will be segmented into very specific elements that are relevant to the part of the device the user is looking at and may be restricted to brief reference content, but may often contain links to longer, procedural content.

Wearable devices (“body-born computers”) are a slightly different take on augmented reality. Google Glass, for example allows users – or wearers – to use voice commands to take pictures and videos, send messages and call up information, such as identifying a route or a landmark. Other kinds of wearable technology will probably be with us soon and they will present technical communicators with a double challenge: how to assist users of these devices to get the most out of them by providing useful help and guidance; and how to make use of these new technologies as a platform for delivering timely and relevant information. Once again, choosing the right technical communication and localization partner for any wearable technology project is crucial.

Trend Three: How Technical Communicators Work

As well as these developments in technology, what will be happening to the working environment of technical communicators in the coming year? While great advances in the use of structured and modular documentation have taken place in the last 10 years, I am not convinced that this is a trend that will trickle down from major corporations to smaller businesses at any time soon. Structured documentation, using XML-based systems such as DITA, has been shown time and again to bring significant savings in both in content development time and in translation costs through content reuse. However, these savings need to be offset against the costs of setting up a component content management system (CCMS), acquiring new tools for content authoring, and training both writers and reviewers in new ways of working. Larger businesses can absorb these costs and reap the longer-term benefits, but as far as I can tell smaller businesses still cannot do so. We still haven’t seen the “killer” low-cost CCMS that will make this work for companies with only a few hundred pages of documentation to maintain, rather than the tens of thousands of pages that larger companies deal with.

Trend Four: Bringing Technical and Marketing Content Creation Closer

What I do see happening this year is a convergence in content creation between technical communicators and marketing departments. Traditionally, these two groups have kept away from each other. Marketing functions have concentrated on pre-sales literature, extolling the virtues of a product rather than explaining its detailed functions. In contrast, technical literature has been seen as a post-sales artifact. Today’s consumer is becoming much more sophisticated and is likely to want to know how a product operates in daily use. They are going to use search engines and social media to find out as much as they can from third parties as well as from the vendor. That means that the vendor’s technical content must also be available and find-able so that potential customers can see it at an early stage. It seems that the messages that content strategists and technical communicators have been promoting in the last few years – that the web does not “contain” content but that it “is” content – are finally getting through. This is good news for technical communicators, as it is recognition of their importance in product promotion, but ultimately it is good news for consumers too. And we are all consumers.

David Farbey is a Fellow of the Institute of Scientific and Technical Communicators (ISTC) and is currently ISTC Council Member responsible for Professional Development and Recognition. From 2012 to 2014 David was Chair of the ISTC’s annual Technical Communication UK Conference (TCUK) David’s personal blog is Marginal Notes