Technical communication trends: How we can meet the challenges


By Larry Kunz

We are part of a profession that is undergoing rapid change. Several trends, spurred on by advances in technology and by the world economy, affect us. We need to understand what these trends mean to us as professionals, and we need to recognize how we can influence these trends.

The first decade of the 21st century saw major changes in the technical communication profession. Content is increasingly being designed for single-sourcing and reuse. Audiences look for information in other places besides the user manual and the company website. Practitioners struggle to demonstrate their value as the job market tightens.

The next ten years will be just as eventful. These trends are continuing, and new ones are emerging as well. Here are the major trends that I think will affect technical communicators in the 2010s:

  • Community-based content, and with it the rise of content strategy and content curation
  • More media and more devices, like smartphones and other personal devices
  • Continued commoditization of technical writing—and, in response, an emphasis on proving that there is real value in what we do

Community-based content—and the need to manage it

Traditional technical writing has been a one-way communication channel: a company or organization publishing content for its readers. Recent technology, however, has established a two-way channel in which the “crowd” or “community” contributes content as well.

With community-based or user-generated content, traditional documentation is augmented by things like blogs, forum posts, and user comments. With so much content coming from so many different sources, there’s clearly an increasing need to manage it. It’ll take a lot of work, and a lot of issues need to be resolved. Who decides what content is suitable to publish? Who decides what content should receive emphasis? Who edits the content to ensure that it conforms to standards for editorial quality, corporate branding, copyright protection, and so forth?

The term content curation has been coined to describe these tasks, and the people who do these tasks are content curators. But what are the qualifications for becoming a content curator? And under what guidelines is the work of content curation performed?

Many observers agree that the task of content curation can’t be done properly unless there’s a content strategy to codify policies and procedures for analyzing, collecting, managing, and publishing the organization’s content. (I’m indebted to Rahel Bailie, http://www.google.com/profiles/rahel.bailie, for this succinct definition of content strategy.)

The star performers of the 2010s will be content strategists (the people in charge of developing and enforcing the content strategy) and content curators who can meet audiences’ demand for information that’s tailored to them and to the tasks they perform. This is good news for us because the skill sets required to fill these new roles are very close to the skills we already have as technical communicators. For example, we know how to do audience analysis, we know how to organize content, and we know how to develop content that conforms to a corporate style guide.

More media and more devices

Ten years ago, how many of us had heard of iPhones or Blu-ray—or even podcasts? The 2010s will bring just as much innovation, with people consuming our information in ways we can’t imagine today. We have to be ready.

Here’s just one example. I’ve seen remarkable prototypes involving animated graphics—guiding an auto mechanic, for example, through the steps involved in repairing an engine. Seeing those prototypes has alerted me to the fact that I should hone my skill at creating graphics. I’ll also need to learn how to make my graphics portable enough to display on a whole universe of devices, many of which have yet to be invented.

There’s another twist to this trend. How can publishers, including technical communicators, pick the media that will be viable in the long term without being led astray by fads? The proliferation of gadgets seems like it’ll never stop. There’ll be winners and losers, though, because there always are. In addition to expanding our communication skills, we’ll need to become adept at guessing which new technologies are worth our time and effort, and which ones are not.

The need to prove the value of technical writing

Increasingly, companies in traditional markets like the U.S. are finding that they can get good writing from abroad for a fraction of what it costs at home. This trend is accelerating as workers in emerging markets like India improve their writing skills. To remain viable, writers in traditional markets are forced to reinvent themselves—perhaps as content curators or content strategists.

On the surface, this would seem to be good news for technical writers in India. For the next several years, in fact, I foresee a healthy growth in the number of jobs and in the salaries for technical writers in India. According to STC India’s 2010 salary survey, median salaries in India are about 28% of U.S. salaries, up from 12% in 2002. This growth will taper off eventually, however. As Indian salaries get closer to salaries paid in Europe and the U.S., companies will have less financial incentive to engage Indian technical writers.

When will the growth begin to taper off? It could happen as soon as 5 to 10 years from now. At that time, it’s likely that Indian technical writers will face the same situation that their U.S. counterparts face today: the need to reinvent themselves in order to remain viable.

As technical communicators vie to prove their value, they’re increasingly looking for ways to differentiate themselves in the job market. After years of study, STC recently introduced a certification program. The program will succeed if two things happen: first, a sufficient number of practitioners must choose to seek certification; second, employers must acknowledge the value of employees and applicants who hold certifications.

In addition to the STC certification we might also see a course curriculum, similar to the PMP curriculum developed by the Project Management Institute, for content strategists or information architects. Almost certainly, we’ll see more tool- or process-specific credentials.

Finally, as technical writers seek to retain their value in the job market, we’ll naturally see an emphasis on persuading our employers that what we do—the practice of technical communication—has significant value. It won’t be enough, however, to show that technical communication has intrinsic or intangible value. We must demonstrate value that can be measured on the company’s profit-and-loss statement.

If we do this right, businesses will see that they need good technical communication to help them succeed in the marketplace and avoid the costs associated with product liability issues. It’s up to us, the professionals, to hone these messages and make sure that they’re well understood in corporate boardrooms.

Working toward success

Our profession is changing, and we would be foolish to ignore the trends that are bringing these changes. Yet we cannot regard the trends simply as a wave that will wash over us as we observe passively. The way we respond to the trends will determine whether we as individuals, and whether the profession as a whole, can thrive in the next 10 to 20 years.

About the Author

Larry Kunz is a project manager and information architect with Systems Documentation, Inc. (SDI) Global Solutions in Durham, NC, USA. In more than 30 years as a writer, manager, and planner he has experienced the transition from book-based documentation to today’s integrated delivery of information from a wide range of sources using different formats and media.

Larry has managed and provided content for both technical writing projects and marketing projects. He holds a Masters Certificate in Project Management from the George Washington University and teaches a Managing the Information Development Process course in the Technical Communication certification program at Duke University. He is a Fellow in the Society for Technical Communication (STC) and in 2010 received the STC President’s Award for leading the Society’s strategic planning effort.

Larry has presented at many STC Summit conferences and other events, including the first STC India Summit held in May 2011.

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