March 2019
Text by Alan Houser

Image: Jay Pierstorff/

Alan Houser is a technical publishing consultant, trainer, and developer. He is a past president and Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication, a voting member of the OASIS DITA Technical Committee and Lightweight DITA Subcommittee, and an adjunct instructor at Carnegie Mellon University.



Is this the end of user assistance as we know it?

Practices around intelligent content and Information 4.0 are becoming increasingly popular in technical communication. Some predict massive, disruptive changes to the way our users consume information, and how we author and deliver it.

With new approaches to creating, managing, and delivering user assistance, how will the practices of technical communication change? How will they remain the same? Can we, as technical communicators and as a profession, make the appropriate distinctions necessary to provide user assistance for an increasing variety of scenarios and use cases, to be delivered via an expanding range of technologies?


Information 4.0 and technical communication

"Industry 4.0" labels the current transformation of manufacturing processes. In Industry 4.0, several technologies have matured to the point of having a profound impact on these processes. Industry 4.0 is a world of ubiquitous sensors; observing, reporting, and correcting problems as they occur, and the pervasive application of Artificial Intelligence.

These devices will presumably require associated content… not locked in a PDF, but associated with each device, its users, use cases, contexts, and possible actions. Our profession is prepared for this transition, as the technical communication practices of information typing, structured content, metadata, and device-independence enable and support delivery of context-appropriate content to humans, and perhaps… to machines.

Our profession has responded by developing appropriate practices and technologies to support these new content requirements. "Information 4.0" labels a set of content characteristics and practices that align with the Industry 4.0 world. According to the Information 4.0 Consortium, characteristics of Information 4.0 content include:

  • Molecular – no documents, just information molecules
  • Dynamic – continuously updated
  • Offered rather than delivered
  • Ubiquitous, online, searchable and findable
  • Spontaneous – triggered by contexts
  • Profiled automatically

And how can we deliver content in a standard package, shareable across devices from different manufacturers, machine-readable, with accompanying standardized metadata? The International Standard for Intelligent Information Request and Delivery, or iiRDS, is the work product of a tekom-led consortium, and was formed specifically to address this requirement.

Information 4.0 expresses documentation practices for a world of intelligent systems, along with billions of connected devices, including sensors that report and may inform action, and ubiquitous display devices. Information 4.0 promises a new age for technical communication. Our users will seek answers based on myriad new factors, including environment and context. And these billions of connected devices are not just content subjects, but are potential content consumers.

Information 4.0 demands new authoring and content management approaches and practices. But desktop publishing-based workflows remain entrenched and ubiquitous. Monolithic file formats like PDF remain popular. Is there a place for legacy and new practices in our profession?


Chatbots and voice interfaces: new ways to deliver content

At tcworld conference 2018, the Information Energy track featured talks about the future of technical communication, particularly in the context of Industry 4.0 and Information 4.0. These sessions focused on new ways to provide information to users, particularly chatbots and context-specific, just-in-time content. Speakers discussed both new mechanisms made possible by technology and real-world challenges in deploying new ways to provide information to users, helping them to make appropriate decisions and take appropriate actions.

Chatbot developers are finding that a chatbot is much more than an information delivery mechanism. Users don't want chatbots to deliver information. Users want chatbots to solve their problems. Users expect chatbots to operate seamlessly with your organization's IT infrastructure. Imagine a user having difficulty registering for your product or service. Does your chatbot user interface

  1. take the user to the appropriate page,
  2. fill in the appropriate page with information that is known about the user, or
  3. guide the user through any fields that may be problematic?


There’s much to learn about writing for these new devices, scenarios, and use cases. Discovery of services is a challenge for voice-only interfaces, as there is no visual menu (for audio-only devices) of available applications or commands. Technical communication prognosticator Scott Abel notes that voice applications and chatbots will likely demand new writing styles, especially as users interact more comfortably and conversationally with voice applications: "We’re going to have to start teaching people how to write conversational content, which is totally different than writing in a narrative or third-person. It’s actually quite challenging."

One can envision two writing styles for the same information – one style for screen interfaces, and one style for voice applications and chatbots.


Will long-form technical communication disappear?

Although technical communicators will increasingly architect molecular content to accompany IoT devices and drive chatbots and voice applications, demand for conventional user assistance will likely remain strong. Current use cases for user assistance are unlikely to disappear. Imagine a user of a complex software application. The user will likely benefit from context-dependent, task-oriented support content. However, if the user's goal is to master the application, the user will benefit from – or even require – information about all user-facing aspects of the application. Likewise, a developer attempting to learn and use an API will need an appropriate mix of overview, tutorial, and reference content. Presentation of an information architecture, whether in the form of a table of contents or an organized, grouped set of topics, will be an invaluable aid to the user's goal.


Will everything change?

But will all of our technical communication practices change? Will all of us write in microcontent-sized chunks intended to accompany IoT devices and power chatbots, voice applications, and just-in-time content delivery? Past experience indicates otherwise. Other forms of technical content will likely remain popular as well as necessary.

Consider the bane of technical publishing workflows… the desktop publishing application. But desktop publishing is appropriate in many circumstances. To present a sweeping generalization, in desktop publishing, it’s easy to create a single document or a small collection of documents. However, desktop publishing applications are woefully inadequate and inappropriate for creating an organization’s strategic content infrastructure. As technical communicators, we advocate the proper tools in the proper circumstances.

Also consider what may be the opposite of microcontent, the long-form PDF document. Many have predicted the demise of the PDF file format. Yet, PDF remains widely popular, the second-most popular file format for content on the web behind HTML. Despite issues with findability and readability on small-screen devices, organizations still demand PDF.

I can’t help but notice that many of the vendors’ marketing documents I encounter about structured authoring, metadata, and intelligent content are published in... PDF. A look at the PDF metadata indicates that most are published with conventional desktop publishing applications. Clearly, PDF remains a popular format in many workflows, particularly for high-value marketing content with design requirements to reflect an organization’s identity and branding.


Writing for machines

One key motivation for the Information 4.0 approach and practices is the idea that machines, as well as humans, will be consumers of content. Some in our profession have spoken of this idea, and there’s evidence that people outside the technical communication profession have taken note of this outcome. A recent report of technology trends states:

If you are an airline mechanic and you’re trying to troubleshoot a tricky engine problem without further delaying a flight, it would be easier if you had a computer read all of the technical documentation for you and suggest likely fixes. Or, better yet, let the machines figure out what’s wrong on their own, by making all technical manuals and documentation available to them for reading and analysis. (2018 Tech Trends Report, Future Today Institute)

As improvements in natural-language processing and Artificial Intelligence converge to make machine consumption of content a reality, our profession is ready. This capability depends on core technical communication practices, including structured authoring, microcontent, XML, and rich metadata.


Things rarely disappear

Use cases, user requirements, and users vary widely. Technologies including the Internet of Things, chatbots, voice applications, Artificial Intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing are all driving new use cases for content and new capabilities for supporting our users. And they motivate very particular approaches, technologies, and tools for content workflows. But I’m reminded of the wisdom of New York Times columnist David Pogue – "Things don’t replace things; they just splinter." Digital audio is ubiquitous, but audiophiles still seek (and purchase, in substantial quantities) vinyl records. Print newspaper circulation has decreased, but millions still read a daily print newspaper. Just as the paperless office has proven elusive, unstructured workflows and PDF publishing will remain. And millions of knowledge workers (and many technical writers) will continue to author unstructured long-form documents using conventional desktop publishing applications.

The Industry 4.0 world will certainly provide new opportunities to change the way we deliver information, and even demand change. But this will be yet another workflow – yet another approach, for particular applications and use cases that require it. And whatever the approach, technical communicators will bring to bear both legacy core skills and new skills and technologies.


The unknown future

It may be easy to forget that the smartphone is just over ten years old. These devices have certainly revolutionized our ability to provide information about our products and services, seamlessly and context-free. Yet some futurists have identified 2018 as the beginning of the decline of the smartphone. What will replace it? Perhaps in ten years we will all be wearing Augmented Reality headsets.

In ten years, what will we look back on and say "we used to do that"? Software used to come with a printed manual. It no longer does, in part because of the realities of economics (expense of printing and distribution) and in part because of new ways to provide information (online). Surely, we will eventually discard some of today’s practices and methods. Which ones, we don’t know yet.


References and resources