For some time now, technical writers have been battling several challenges – sometimes the trouble is with the ‘technical’ and sometimes with the ‘writing’! Whether it is to sustain his/her present job or clear an interview for better opportunities, trends in technical writing have changed so much that the humble technical writer is now expected to know about web programming, mobile applications, cloud storage and what not!
Technical writing techniques have also changed due to a massive influence of software and digital technology in the authoring process. Today, there are so many different technical writing tools available that it becomes a hard choice as well as the fact that their usage has to be mastered. To add to this, technical writing is no longer an isolated function. Rather, there are several business focus areas that overlap with technical writing such as e-learning, onboarding, software product adoption, customer success and so on!
But this is no surprise either. As the world economy evolves and disruptions become ubiquitous, companies understand that they must do two things on priority. The first is to ensure that every resource and asset becomes valuable by driving certain business outcomes. The more outcomes each resource drives, the more valuable to the company it is. The second is to become lean and agile, sometimes as a way to cut costs, but also to improve immunity from external shocks which could be highly threatening. And that’s where these trends in technical writing emerge from. In its legacy form, technical writing may not deliver a lot of value for companies. But, when companies adopt these new emerging trends in technical writing, the function transforms into something entirely new and, more importantly, value driven.
Though the changes are plenty, a systematic and focussed effort can help technical writers bridge this technical writing skill gap. This is the first in a series of articles intended to serve as a one stop jaunt to uncover all the major trends in technical writing and how the function can be pivoted to drive several critical business processes.
Apart from the traditional Product Development lifecycle, there is another sequential process that enterprises are dealing with. It covers the all steps that lead a customer from initial awareness, to committed product purchase and value realization. Technical writers trained to deal with the traditional PDLC have a perspective in which user interest in a product is taken for granted. But that is no longer the case. This is because product vendors also have a role in driving end user adoption. And without end user adoption, the project can’t be deemed successful.
Product adoption deals with the customer’s changing attitude towards the product as he gets to know the product better. Product adoption is essentially a marketing process, so the key documentation revolves around product recall, competitor analysis, promotion and pricing. Technical writers would do well to reorient themselves into this paradigm. Upcoming trends in technical writing encourage technical writers to work towards helping drive end user adoption. This is one of the trends in technical writing that companies should definitely adopt to future proof themselves.
A technical writer’s principal goal is to ensure the reader gets the message that the product team wants to convey. It could be about educating the reader on a product, service, new technology, anything. Modern businesses have found that e-learning is a very effective technique to achieve this. Be it instructional videos or live interactive sessions, learning content can be of various forms, deployed using an LMS (Learning Management System). E-learning serves to achieve a critical portion of the product adoption process – train the user on the product. On the other side, content needs to be personalized to the end user as well. That’s where customized content delivery comes into play.
User onboarding is another business paradigm that runs alongside with product adoption. User onboarding process refers to the induction and integration a new customer (or employee) into the product (or company) fold. Going by the recent trends in technical writing, it can be said that a technical writer is also responsible for generating user documentation to facilitate this phase. Product help, usage instructions, example case studies, interactive training sessions – all of these and several other e-learning solutions – could be used to serve this purpose. Quick and effective onboarding is a direct consequence of good technical writing.
SCORM is a reference standard for creating and sharing web based training content. It forms the foundation for a Learning Management System (LMS), as it content creators to reuse their content across vendors and tools. Whatfix enjoys the distinction of being the first SCORM compliant in-app guidance system.
A slightly older and well matured standard floated by the same forum who came with DITA much later. This one is for designing technical books and articles in digital formats, but printing them as hard copies.
First, designing documents and layouts went digital. From the humble MS Word to sophisticated Adobe tools, desktop designing brought in design reuse, open DTD standards, XML based layouts and templates. Subsequently, documents were not just digitally designed but published online too. So the printed version was almost eliminated.
Once publishing went digital, the challenge of device diversity had to be faced. Technical documents would now have to work on all sorts of devices – PCs, smart phones, tablets of various sizes. A lot depends on whether the documentation is being developed from scratch or existing ones are being adapted. Responsive layouts (browser adjusts page) or adaptive layouts (product server manages) are the key methods employed. Some tools offer Liquid Layout rules, while some others create device-specific layouts.
Technical documentation has been about ‘educating’ a user in the old paradigm, irrespective of what he already knows or what he seeks to know. Manuals, guides, white-papers – all of them were about instructive one sided communication. However, with the onset of high speed internet and data analytics, the user is not a passive player any more. User profiling algorithms can unearth deep insights into their preferences. Once the user begins to use the product, constant feedback is received about his usage. 2 way interactive systems (with the help of eLearning platforms, product adoption tools) ensures that users get what they want with least time and effort.
High exposure to digital gadgets has lowered the attention span of users, and also made our searches more visual. Hence technical writers need to convey the message to the customer in short, succinct and effective ways. Research papers are discussed on Podcasts. Customer support chats are answered by pre-programmed bots. Installation manuals carry a series of animated GIFs! FAQs are replaced by in-page support tags (Whatfix link). Trouble shooting guides are replaced by interactive video sessions. The common trend among all these developments is that communication between the customer and the product team is not through lengthy documents anymore. It takes various forms of audio-visuals that are interactive and easy to consume.
In the past, technical documentation for a product was an elaborate representation of the product on paper. Manuals to cover how it works, brochures to promote sales, whitepapers about research and so on were the common ones. The technical writers hired were primarily ‘writers’ who understood the product and wrote about it. But in today’s day and age, technical writers commonly known as ‘content writers’. There is a whole lot of UX blended into the content generation process, making the user the centrepiece of documentation and not the product itself.
There is one noticeable thread that can be spotted across all these trends, it is that technical documentation (or content writing as it is called now) is certainly a job in great demand.
It has certainly morphed into modern forms, increased its reliance on technology and tools. But the essence of the job remains the same – understand the product and convey your understanding to the customer effectively. Technical writers can take heart with that fact! And this series of articles hopes to aid technical writers to achieve their transition into modern business world.