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The Decade Ahead: Opportunities and Challenges for Technical Communication Professionals

June 18, 2012
Adobe sponsored a pre-conference session to bring together thought leaders in the technical communication industry. With experts like Ann Rockley, Joe Welinske, Bernard Aschwanden, Matt Sullivan, Lynn Price, Neil Perlin, and others, you couldn’t beat the value of this free session.
In all honesty, I expected to hear about the greatness of Adobe’s Technical Communication Suite. But there was no sales pitch. There were no tutorials. There was no endorsement of products. It was enjoyable.
I hope Adobe offers a similar session next year, but it would be great if it didn’t conflict with the Leadership Program. Community leaders are some of the most passionate members in our industry. They are interested in the future of not only STC, but of technology and best practices as well.
Developing an Adaptive Content StrategyAnn Rockley
Ann Rockley began by sharing methods to develop an adaptive content strategy. As mobile devices are rapidly change in shape and size, communicators must create content that delivers the best possible customer experience, filtering and layering the content for greater or lesser detail. Now, we can change content based on location. Many companies are doing twice the necessary work by designing a web site, followed by a separate app. And mobile apps can be time-consuming and expensive to develop.
According to Ann, “Handcrafting [content] is unsustainable.”
We must determine what actions are users will be able to complete based on output. To support adaptive content, we must have structure content, business rules, and output limits.
Ann suggested we work backwards. We must know your customer, your device restraints, and your content strategy. Develop personas to represent your audience. From there, layer your content with options. Content is becoming more minimalist. Structure your content for unexpected situations and undeveloped devices.
We must change our processes. We must stop tweaking and tuning content for perfect fit. We must know what content is required based on situation. We need to be explicit about content limits.
And we must take opportunities to share this strategy with marketing, web design, and other communicators. The future is structure authoring.
Multi-Screen Help Authoring, How to Deal with the Explosion in Device SizesJoe Welinske
As apps move from smart phones and tablets to cars and televisions, we must find ways to get our content where are users are without recreating the content for each device. Joe Welinske gave a hands-on demonstration of a single master source distributed to multiple devices. Within the style sheets, it is possible to define which content is sent to each device based on screen resolution.
To make a graceful, efficient adjustment by matching content with specific devices without crafting solutions for each device through responsive design (adaptive content). Using HTML5/CSS (DIV tags), technical communications can create adaptive content.
To begin, tag all objects with styles, use style sheets for device “types” and media queries match SS with type. Create one source file with styles sheets for each device definitions (based on screen size and function). When a dramatically different device is released, you need only to create a new style sheet. By using a media query to determine the device information, including dimensions, your content will respond based on the parent style sheet, which states if this size, then use this style sheet.
Joe made a point that we cannot leave presentation to be an afterthought. We should have a graceful adaption.
Panel: The Decade AheadAnn Rockley, Bernard Aschwanden, Joe Gollner, Ben Sloan, Matt Sullivan, Lynn Price, Neil Perlin, Joe Gongi
After a short break and another presentation, we had the opportunity to hear from the pros about their individual thoughts on the future of technical communication.
I will include my notes from this portion of the session in a Q&A format, but will not include every answer. The answers are not verbatim.
“How do we position ourselves as technical communicators to take advantage of the opportunities over the next decade to benefit our company & ourselves?”
Ann: We have a lot of experience to share with others. We need to position ourselves to participate in decision making process for communications. We must move away from the support role.
Bernard: Become user advocates. Speak for your customers, including purchasing, IT, and end users. “Learn everything.” Take advantage of all you can do. Track conference metrics to justify attendance.
Joe Gollner: At Confab, Erin Kissane said content strategists “have a lot to learn from tech comm.”
(My thoughts: Erin Kissane is fabulous. The fact that she recognizes technical communicators as having something more to offer, shows that our field is receiving the recognition it should on a wider basis.)
Joe Gollner (continued): As technical communicators, we have more technical view on how to do communication. There is desperate need to show others what technology is out there and how it can be used.
Lynn: We should remember things in the distant past when looking at next decade. Our users are changing. Don’t expect users to look for information. Time must be spent indexing and providing links to make it easy for users to find content.
Neil: Call it strategic consulting, make sure you know what people mean when they say mobile help, web help, etc. We are now presenting content more than we are writing technically. Work towards standard practices. Do things correctly by being aware of what opportunities are out there.
Joe Gongi: Show users/managers opportunities. Don’t just tell them. Take the extra time to create a prototype or example. Don’t just theorize.
Many treat tool as religion, but tools come and go, being replaced by better tools. Learn everything, but become an expert in one or two things, but know enough to be dangerous in everything else.
With reuse, we might not need so many content creators. How can we respond to this change to keep our jobs?
Ann: We must market as being able to do more with the same number of people, not the same with less people. We are making ourselves much more valuable. Be more productive to help org in new ways.
Ben: As we automate, we must understand that we can put out more by being more efficient.
Lynn: Yes, we can justify ourselves, if we are given the opportunity. Creating materials takes a skill set. We must make content easy for our readers. We have skills that can be lost if we don’t publicize. Some writers don’t understand opportunities.
Neil: Think of what we do not as writing, but as content creation that supports content strategy. We must reduce costs or improve company branding.
Joe Gongi: It’s all about quality. Don’t explain things that aren’t really necessary. (For example, don’t explain that “to get to help, click help.”) We must know how to deliver to audience. Don’t make users waste time, but create opportunities to help the novice to learn. Make intelligent applications to help users. Create learning that truly increases productivity. Make people more productive.
What is key skill set needed in next 10 years?
Neil: Sheer curiosity. Learn everything. Have some knowledge about a little of everything.
Ann: Curiosity is critical. We can’t stay still. If we don’t communicate ourselves or promote what we do within our organization, then we will be bypassed.
Bernard: Remember your roots, then help others with a similar background get to where you are in your career now.
Joe Gollner: Presentation, quality, and effectiveness cannot be an afterthought. Don’t forget about these qualities or special skillsets.
Lynn: Some say, “Technical writing doesn’t have to be a job. Everyone knows how to write, format, etc. Why do we need someone special to do that?: We must convince others that what you do is of higher quality than they can do.
What are some traps you can avoid in choosing technology and methodology?
Joe Gongi: I am always surprised by how often people use the most cumbersome way because they don’t know technology or tools. You must know what tools can do. Don’t assume. Know.
Lynn: We must balance people who will do the same thing for 40 years with those who will use new tools. Old tasks must be done, but slightly different.
Matt: How do we separate formatting from content? Many spend too much time working on formatting.
Joe Gollner: Don’t make content management tools the primary focus. Work now to focus on the author, because if the author is forgotten, often the user is forgotten.
Bernard: Avoid thinking the audience will be the same in a few months, years, etc.
Ann: Treat everyone in content life cycle as user or customer. Learn their pain points. Make the tools support users within the organization as well. Don’t impose technology. If it doesn’t work for them, it won’t work for anyone.
The information from Sunday morning was extremely valuable and gave everyone a great idea about where technical communication is going. The ideas from the panelists and speakers helped attendees as we move into a rapidly evolving state of technology.
One Comment leave one →
  1. Saibal Bhattacharjee permalink
    June 19, 2012 2:19 am

    Hi Jamie – Glad to know you liked the Adobe pre-conference thought leadership event at the recent STC SUMMIT 2012 in Chicago! We enjoyed every minute of putting together this event for you guys…and we hope to be back with a bigger and better pre-conference event at the STC SUMMIT 2013 in Atlanta next year. See you there! Regards, Saibal Bhattacharjee (Product Marketing Manager, Adobe Systems Inc.)

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