Beyond Pages and PDF: The changing role of Technical Communication

Much has been written about how the job title “technical writer” or “technical editor” is probably out-of-date. Today’s authors and editors of mission critical technical information have taken on new, hybrid roles. This is the perfect week to reflect on this topic as the Intelligent Content Conference meets in Palm Springs February 21st through February 24th.

Adobe is a key sponsor for this event, and I will be delivering an early morning presentation on “Reshaping Content for the Small Screen.”

Content Curation

Tech comm publishers must gather and filter information from ever widening channels and feeds of evolving source material. It may seem a bit like trying to fill water cooler bottles from Niagara Falls. The key to Content Curation is “intelligence”, the ability to discern what is relevant for the product, for the mission and for the intended information consumer.

Scott Abel wrote an excellent blog on Content Curation for The Content Wrangler just over a year ago  that is worth rereading: “Content Curation: Streamlining The Process Of Populating Your Social Networks With Relevant, Interesting and Engaging Content.” Although this blog focuses on social media, it covers the dynamics that are shaping the attention span and expectations of almost any technical content consumers.

Images in motion

A series of progressive, static screen captures is often no longer adequate to engage and inform the tech comm consumer. Since so much of the workforce is being conditioned by hours of viewing YouTube and other video content, not suprisingly, many consumers become impatient having to page through 17 pages of captioned static images rather than watch a 7 second motion capture.

Fortunately, Tech Comm Suite delivers an excellent solution, enabling authors to embed dynamic media (from Captivate and other sources) directly into FrameMaker source files. A poster image will indicate the intent of the motion capture or video, and users can view dynamic motion illustrations in PDF or Help files.

Smaller and smaller screens: ePubs

We’ve all seen the overwhelming statistics of how dramatically iPad, Kindle and other eReaders and full functioned tablets grew in sales late last year. Over the past 18 months, a sizeable segment of information consumers have become adept at and used to finding engaging technical content on their smart phones.

Fortunately, Adobe’s Tech Comm Suite greatly simplifies the process of reducing, reformatting and repurposing FrameMaker source files into multiple versions o simpler, streamlined ePubs format via RoboHelp.

A new meaning for “thumbnails”

For years there have been guidelines for PowerPoint slides, e.g. don’t have more than 5 bullet points per slides. That is usually the maxium number of ideas an average viewer can remember. Now, we are not only dealing with a vastly reduced canvas for sharing information, but shortened attention spans and “impatient thumbs.” If a user is viewing critical technical information on a hand held smart phone, he or she is not likely to be very patient with “thumbing through” 17 or 18 lengthy bullets in a list.

Multiple versions and reduced word count

As technical communicators and originators of technical content, we have to view text and graphics through multiple lenses. This logically leads to creating multiple versions of “documents.” Example, for a proposal, a traditional, “pretty” PDF version may be appropriate, but a scaled down, executive summary that can be swiftly viewed via smart phone during air travel could prove to be mission critical.

In structured or unstructured documents we have tools to choose from like FrameMaker conditional text or filter by attribute in DITA.

This blog only touches on highlights of many topics that will have a “deep dive” at ICC2012. If you wish to follow the conversation on Twitter, the hash tag will be #ICC12.

I will be posting almost daily blogs with highlights of the day’s discussions and revelations. As always, we look forward to your comments and insights.

Prediction: in the coming year we will see more content creators turning to combinations of tools that effectively combine text with dynamic graphics, and authoring solutions that have some means of displaying “how much” structured content you have written (line count, etc.) for a particular device.