March 2018
Text by Andrea Ames

Image: © bowie15/

Andrea L. Ames is the founder and CEO of Idyll Point Group. Her 35 years of experience in the content business include writing, information architecture, usability, and content experience, as well as design and strategy. She has also been teaching these topics at the University of California for more than 20 years. Her consulting focuses on organization design for content teams and content leader development.

Twitter: @aames

Product content in the brave new world of cognitive technology

Is the recent frenzy around cognitive technologies – deep learning, agentive technology, bots, and AI – something technical communicators need to be concerned about? Do these technologies herald a new renaissance for content? Or is our field doomed to obsolescence when the bots take over?

To sum up my opinion about this brave new world:

Same problems, different day… huge opportunity.

What do I mean? Let’s start with "same problems".

Same problems

At its roots, not much has changed about business or our industry since the bots began taking over (the past 5-10 years). Our goals are the same:

  • Our clients (as in the consumers of our content) want to achieve success.
  • Businesses want to acquire and retain customers, make money, and grow.
  • As technical communicators we want to
    - support our clients in successfully achieving their goals
    - contribute to the success of our businesses to achieve their goals

In other words, everyone wants an experience in which the right content is designed and delivered to the right people at the right time.

These core tenets of our industry and business have not changed over the 35 years that I’ve been in this industry. The business environment and landscape have changed – often dramatically – and changed back again, and this cycle has been repeated several times. Our clients’ expectations have altered and grown increasingly demanding. Those expectations are clearly keeping pace with the changes in technology – particularly the technology that manifests itself in new experiences. All of this is aided and abetted by the technology that now infiltrates nearly every aspect of our homes and lives.

It’s a virtuous (or vicious, depending on your viewpoint) cycle. More technology that does more for us raises our expectations. Our expectations and our perceived needs – in conjunction with some human ingenuity and creativity that requires no other stimulus – drive advancements in technology. And the beat goes on…

At their core, however, our challenges remain the same:

  • What is the right content? How do we create it efficiently and effectively?
  • Who are the right people? What do they want to do?
  • When is the right time? How do we deliver content at that time?

Note that with the exception of the last question regarding delivery, these are not technology questions. Tools and technology might help us solve some of these problems, but at their core, these are primarily questions regarding people and processes.

Even more critical, there are myriad content development environment challenges that our organizations must resolve before we can make progress on delivering content to successfully support our clients. These include process concerns, but they go beyond content processes. These are the true people challenges, spanning teams and functions and including matters of authority, incentives, and personal agendas. Until these organizational perils are successfully navigated, our ability to approach our content in a thoughtful, well-planned, and strategic way will be severely hampered.

Different day

While our basic problems remain the same, time and progress have provided us with new technologies to address our challenges. Enter cognitive technologies, including bots, AI, agentive technology, and deep learning. Using cognitive technologies in a smart way, we have significantly better ways to deliver content to our customers. These technologies are great enablers of the content consumer’s experience.

These technologies are not, however, general solutions to address all of our concerns. Throwing new technology at a problem before the fundamental people- and process-oriented issues are addressed does not solve the problem. Instead, those underlying concerns are magnified, and our solutions are the proverbial "houses built on sand," in danger of collapsing when the unresolved issues regarding people, culture, or processes rear up. Even after those issues have been dealt with, we humans must still determine who are our content consumers, what is it exactly they want to accomplish, what is the right content for them, and when is the right time to present it.

Just as moving all of our print manuals into online Help 15 or 20 years ago did not magically dissipate all of our customers’ problems with using our products, applying cognitive technologies to a content house that is not in order is a fool’s errand. Yesterday’s core principles of great content apply today as they will tomorrow:

  • We need a strategy, a design, and a plan based on what our businesses and clients need.
  • Our information must have a structure and definition to describe the content at a general level (model and metadata).
  • Our organization must understand, buy into, and support the processes and culture necessary to implement the strategy, design, and plan, as well as the required infrastructure and technology.
  • We must implement an effective way to maintain, measure, and modify the organizational structures necessary to run a healthy content business (governance).

These are not primarily technology problems; these are challenges requiring people to come together – often having to drop their personal agendas first – and agree on cross-functional, cross-silo solutions that benefit the customer. These problems are increasing in scope within organizations as content becomes more and more entwined with the client experience, and solving them is more necessary than ever for the successful delivery of our products and services.

Imagine all the content

Imagine it is the year 1988, and you have some unstructured print content. It’s not super helpful content, but it’s benign, like a common wart. Clients read it; it might not help them, but they’re no worse off, because they can muddle through the user interface (UI) of your product, browse your book, and possibly obtain some results. The content might be a wart, but it’s a mostly undetected wart.

Now imagine that it’s 1999, and you are putting that benign content online. Now it’s searchable, along with all of your other content. It’s easier to access. Great, right? Sadly, now your clients can quickly and easily see that you don’t really provide the answer that they need. Your wart is now more exposed, and your clients are more dissatisfied.

Fast forward to 2020 when your unstructured and unhelpful-but-benign content is being served through your product’s new UI, a chatbot. There’s no visual UI, no help system, no search. Your content doesn’t address their need, but that’s always been okay in the past, so you can slide by now as well, right? Unfortunately not. Now your clients are much more likely to go elsewhere for the content they need, and perhaps even to another product and another company. If they didn’t already do so before, they now believe that content is the experience.

Huge opportunity

As Albert Einstein said, "In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity." As I talk with technical communicators from around the world about the future of content in the new world of cognitive technology and Information 4.0, I hear their concerns and fears. There is no question that we live in a time of change, and change is always difficult.

As a result of this change our industry is at an inflection point. Regardless of which path we choose, the movement around us toward cognitive technologies will surge forward relentlessly.

The question that remains is: Where will the content industry be when the dust settles? Will we be riding on top of the wave, perhaps even helping to drive it forward? Will we be crushed by it? Or will we be swirling in the eddies that are left by the wave passing us by?

As much as humans abhor it, change also offers opportunities. We can hide from it, continuing to do things as we have always done them. Or we can choose to embrace it and leverage it to meet our own ends – like ensuring that our content and content experiences are stellar and are consistently supporting the needs of our customers and businesses.

As the new technology exposes what has been labeled by well-known information architect Abby Covert our "corporate underpants", we have an even bigger responsibility to get our content house in order. We must drive the transformation within our organizations to grow and nurture a strategic content business. This is our most valuable opportunity!

Seizing the opportunity

I don’t want to scare you, but to seize this opportunity, we have a lot of significant work to do. The great news is that we are up for the challenge! Thanks to "same problems, different day," we know what we need to do:

  1. Excel at the basics; we can’t abandon our basic communication and content roots.
  2. Continue our vigilance in understanding our audiences and their needs and goals.
  3. Learn all that we can about what our business is trying to accomplish, and understand how our content supports and drives these goals; evangelize our value toward successfully achieving these business goals.
  4. Create a strategy, communicate it, deliver accordingly, and measure it; measure early, measure often, and correct as needed.
  5. Lead the activities that provide for a sound and healthy content business: defining models, governing content, and leading agreement across functions, teams, and silos.
  6. Seek out and stay on top of the new technologies – try some things, learn (fail) quickly and in small increments, and share what you are learning.

The work that we do will help our businesses resolve these organizational challenges, working through unhealthy structures, agendas, and incentives to grow and embrace the changes ahead. And, as the organizational challenges are addressed, the content business will be more successful. This is our own virtuous cycle, one we must fight to perpetuate.

Now you have a personal choice to make. What will you do? Where will you be in the not-too-distant future when cognitive content experiences are ubiquitous and mundane – the "online help" of the cognitive era? Will you be swirling in the eddies of the opportunity that has passed you by? Or will you seize the opportunity to ride – or drive – the wave of cognitive content, difficult as it might be?

Me? I’ll be on top of the wave. I hope to see you there, and share the driving!

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#1 Jody Winter wrote at Fri, Jul 06 answer

These changes are happening in the small software company I work for here in Auckland, New Zealand. I'm the sole tech writer, with a focus on user assistance and online help. After our CE announced a change in development direction in May, I had a very frank chat with him and told him about the opportunities I saw in the content space. Now, I am busy implementing common language across the organisation at technical and general levels, changing my online help content to be AI-ready, and learning how to script the responses our bot will serve up when it's developed. I'm just lucky my CE saw how valuable I am to the whole strategy. I'm excited and not at all afraid!