A Review of Top 10 Trends Driving the Technical Communication Industry

Friday, April 20 2012 @ 2:59 AM, By Maxwell Hoffmann

Adobe Tech Comm recently hosted an eSeminar with a guest speaker from the Branham Group, Christian Gravelle, Senior Technical Analyst, who authored a detailed White Paper on the “Top 10 Trends Driving the Technical Communication Industry.” Details on how to download the White Paper or view the recorded eSeminar are listed at the end of this blog, which summarizes main points and adds some comments appropriate to Tech Comm Suite.

Trend #1: Adoption of Structured Documents

Structured documents offer a host of benefits, ranging from fewer errors due to reusable content, to reduced translation costs. Localization of content may be reduced in cost because structured document can reuse referenced content that is translated once and displayed many times. In addition, structured documents have a separation of template/formatting from content; this allows for increased automation of post-translation formatting, further reducing costs.

In recent times, general wisdom indicated that a certain number of content creators (writers) were needed to justify the time and expense of migrating into structured authoring. That is changing as authoring systems drop in price and some solutions (like FrameMaker) help hide the complexity of XML and DITA from authors and even casual users.

Trend #2: Shift Towards Single Source Publishing

Several forces are driving this trend. Many companies have to produce documentation or Help Systems that address multiple products and also multiple user personas. The user experience in documentation or Help may be location or role based.

It would be a document management nightmare to have an individual source file for each version of documentation. The use of conditional expressions as well as CMS-driven topic based authoring can make the goal of single source publishing a reality.

Trend #3: Added Complexity in Multi-Format/Multi-Channel Delivery

Customers have been heavily influenced by YouTube, easily available video or dynamic content on tablet computers and constant access to rich media on smart phones. As a result, many customers no longer have the patience or attention span required for high page count, “traditional” documentation.

Complex processes may be documented through video or screen simulations that are inserted within documentation, whether it is delivered in PDF or traditional Help formats. This is another area where FrameMaker, RoboHelp and Tech Comm Suite have established a competitive edge, enabling authors to easily insert rich media into documentation. The resulting PDF, WebHelp or ePubs are more interactive and engaging for customers.

Trend #4: Providing for Mobile Delivery

In the last 12 months we’ve seen eBook sales overtake traditional books at Amazon. Over 3 million iPads were sold on the first weekend of the latest product introduction. Continual upgrades and improvements to smart phones have made business critical content more portable than ever. We can no longer assume that the customer is sitting in front of a laptop or flipping through a hardcopy manual for guidance and instruction.

The area of ePubs involves many evolving standards, particularly in regards to dynamic resizing of graphics. It is clear, though, that customers are willing to put up with temporary limitations in order to have access to information “anywhere, anytime.” Fortunately, Adobe Tech Comm Suite allows for very simple transformation of regular or unstructured content into ePub format.

Trend #5: Increased Demand for Topic Based, Context Specific Help

Content may be consumed in so many ways and locations, that context-sensitive or user-personalizd help is becoming the norm. Customers are becoming accustomed to making choices on screen that will filter out unwanted data and present only relevant information. Fortunately, structured contents, topic-based authoring, conditional expressions and many other features commonly found in authoring systems are making this process easier. Although Adobe Tech Comm Suite excels in this area, authors must visualize multiple personas and situations while authoring various components of the source documentation.

Trend #6: Movement to Multimedia Communication

Multiple generations of users are gravitating towards technical communications with less text and more visual and video content. This has been heavily influenced by YouTube, Facebook and other social media channels that lean heavily towards visual content.

Older users may find information easier to perceive without bifocals or reading glasses for stacks of text in small point sizes. Many younger users grew up with a variety of video devices to consume, and are also influenced by the immediacy of texting and “face chat” on smart phones. Print and PDF won’t go away completely, but content will continue to have less text and more dynamic, interactive imagery.

Trend #7: Social Interaction, a Springboard for Direct Customer and User Input

Social media and social networking of all forms have led to customers who are accustomed to interacting with content. Whether the user is making a comment to a blog, rating the quality of a portion of a help system, or even uploading useful examples for other users, the overall experience has become dynamic and participatory. As a result, it is critical to be able to produce versions of Help or Documentation that allow consumer interaction, topic rating and contributions.

Adobe Tech Comm Suite is particularly well poised for this trend due to its ability to publish to AdobeAIR help, which allows comments (moderated or not) and user ratings of content. Customer participation in online Help or documentation is a welcomed trend, as it enables product vendors to get real time market and product research through daily interaction with their customer base.

Trend #8: The Growing Role of Reporting and Analytics

Just as corporations began to invest in extensive analytics for SEO (Search Engine Optimization) on their corporate websites a few years ago, the trend has spread to tech comm content. It is widely known that many people “don’t read the manuals” and try to find just the portion of help or documentation they need within a Help System. Fortunately, RoboHelp Server addresses this need very well with page statistics on search terms (including common misspellings), traffic patterns, frequently viewed content, and more. These analytics essentially let a vendor “shape” their documentation based on daily traffic and social media patterns from their customer base.

Trend #9: The Specialist, the “Jack of All Trades,” and the Growing Chasm

A confluence of roles and skillsets has redefined what is required of technical communicators. Some technical communicators may find themselves pidgeon-holed in single-function job titles like “technical writer” or “graphic artist.” Due to the increasing need to produce multi-media rich technical communications, many tech comm professionals need to expand their skillsets to cover more than one or two aspects of the content that they must create. Adobe Tech Comm Suite provides a versatile authoring environment than includes topic-based, structured authoring to produce multi-channel, multi-device publishing capabilities.

The ability to embed rich media in documents and also to output source document files to richly formatted PDF, ePubs or AdobeAIR Help (which allows user comments and ratings) are a hallmark of how Tech Comm Suite can help today’s tech comm professionals expand their skills and increase their value to their clients or employers.

Trend #10: Improved Time to Market through Automated Processes and Effective Collaborative Facilities

Single-sourcing (one set of source files producing multiple variations of content and deliverables) significantly speeds up project delivery. Automated processes, often integrated with content management solutions, (e.g. implemented via FrameMaker Server or RoboHelp Server) can also enable tech comm teams to produce and deliver massive amounts of content in a fraction of the time required by traditional desktop publishing. For instance, Adobe FrameMaker Server integrates with Windows Task Scheduler and provides scripting facilities for automation. To protect previous versions, customers can even automate publishing and post-publish commands to rename, move and archive existing file output so subsequent project builds will not overwrite earlier files.

Efficient, collaborative review is also essential for timely delivery. Comments from a multitude of sources need to be incorporated during the edit and review cycle. Both Adobe FrameMaker and Adobe RoboHelp support the creation of PDF Review files that are enabled for comments and annotations in free Adobe Acrobat Reader. Multiple copies of PDF Review files can be distributed, or Tech Comm Suite enables the ability for multiple collaborative reviewers to comment and annotate a single PDF file “in the cloud” or on a SharePoint server. Once comments are complete, they may be imported back into the FrameMaker or RoboHelp source files, “in place,” eliminating common errors that occur when editors “copy and paste” comments.

In Conclusion

As authoring tools improve their ability to hide the complexity of XML and allow “mere mortals” on a project team to participate in critical content creation, collaborative authoring becomes more practical. More wide-spread use of structured authoring further increased the use of single-sourcing, multichannel delivery and various forms of content reuse. Time and cost savings accrued by these practices are magnified by localization into other languages; content reuse reduces the word count for translation and reduced publishing steps lead to savings magnified by the number of target languages.

Every expanding social media and customers becoming accustomed to commenting and reviewing tech comm content is leading to a challenging but rich, new authoring environment. Vendors now have the opportunity to experience near real time feedback from users, and fine tune or reshape tech comm content on a monthly if not weekly basis.

There is some irony that two very mature products, FrameMaker and RoboHelp, have been combined and enriched through Adobe Tech Comm Suite to address virtually all of the trends listed in the Branham report. It will be interesting to revisit what the top trends are in another 18 months after expanded use of Tech Comm Suite influences the authoring and review cycle to a further degree.

Read and view the full version of this report

You can view a recording of the eSeminar “Top 10 Trends Driving the Technical Communication Industry”. The full White Paper that this blog was based on is available for download in PDF format. We hope you enjoy the further detail you will find in both the on-demand eSeminar and full White Paper.

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