The evolution of technical communication
Over the years technical communication has transitioned from a conventional author-reader engagement to a realm of social collaboration. Let’s take a look at how technical communication has progressed over time and the significant milestones along the way.
The need to develop user guidance materials for end-users is representative of the intrinsic need of human beings to demystify the complex processes that make an application work. This ensures that documentation will constitute a pivotal function in product and service delivery. Increasingly, technical communicators are beginning to drive end-user communication, such as in the form of moderating the content developed in a collaborative environment.
Technical communication: the genesis
There are multiple views about the emergence of technical communication. Even ancient Egyptian and Greek cultures reveal examples of help documentation.
Millenniums later, the World Wars witnessed the development of extensive documentation for using products associated with the defense industry. In 1957, the Society of Technical Writers (STW) in Massachusetts and the Association of Technical Writers and Editors (ATWE) in New York merged to form the Society for Technical Communication (STC), giving rise to a new industry.
From then on, the discipline has metamorphosed to embrace the use of structured authoring and collaborative content development. With the use of Wiki and Web 2.0 concepts technical communication has transitioned from being instructional to interactive. A technical writer has truly become "an honest mediator between people who create technology and who use technology".
The table below describes the key milestones that have established technical communication as a discipline, redefined it over the years, and truly changed the face of content in course of time.
First technical publication
Considered the “first noted technical writer”, Joseph Chapline wrote a user’s manual for the BINAC computer that he developed. This was groundbreaking, considering the need for technical communicators was not established. Chapline began offering classes in technical communication, teaching over 200 students at the Moore School of Engineering that formed a part of the University of Pennsylvania.
The “Help Wanted” advertisements
The first “Help Wanted” advertisement for a technical writer was published.
Upsurge in the demand for technical writers
The sustained growth of technology, particularly in the field of electronics and aeronautics, necessitated a large-scale increase in demand for technical communicators. During the sixties, a significant number of articles on various aspects of technical writing were published across journals. The discussions in the world of technical communication also resulted in new journals being published in this field – the first issue of Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, for example, was published in 1971.
Verdict by the U.S. Department of Justice on establishing technical communication as a profession
While the discipline originated long ago, it was not until 1980 that technical communication was considered a recognized profession according to the legal system. It required a case in the court of law to establish technical communication as a profession. An immigrant declared “technical publications writer” as his profession. This was accepted, leading the United States Department of Justice to acknowledge technical communication as a profession.
Proliferation of desktop publishing
Publishing software started proliferating on desktops of writers. These included products like Corel Ventura Publisher, Interleaf, Adobe FrameMaker, and Aldus PageMaker. The use of these products resulted in the development of content with attractive layouts and typographic quality. Publishing software also offered graphic design styles such as color, transparency, and filters, which could be applied to layout elements. In addition, typography style sheets could be applied to texts.
ISO 9000 certification requirements
The certification requirements for ISO 9000 quality management created new job opportunities for technical communicators. Technical communicators were required to maintain the ISO 9000 documentation and transition to the level of subject matter experts of the quality management system.
Introduction of XML
XML has had a significant impact on software development in general, and began to have a similar effect in technical communication by 1999. XML was recognized as a platform-independent language for publishing documentation in any format. Authoring tools, publishing tools and content management systems provide support for XML languages. Over the years, the Darwin Information Typing Architecture (DITA) has emerged as an XML-based architecture for authoring and delivering technical content. This architecture consists of a set of design principles for creating a topic-oriented information architecture that can be used in various delivery modes, such as online Help.
Introduction of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act
Enacted to protect investors from fraudulence in corporate accounting and audit, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) was approved by the U.S. Congress in 2002. Section 404 of SOX, in particular, requires the management to generate reports on the effectiveness of a company’s internal control over financial reporting. This opened up new avenues for technical communicators, since the documentation required towards supporting financial reporting includes flowcharts, policy manuals, accounting manuals and procedural write-ups – all of which are artifacts that technical communicators specialize in.
From the user manual to social collaboration
In an endeavor to keep pace with the ever-changing world of technology, user manuals gave way to the digital format. Previously, user manuals were closely linked to the print industry. As the need for printed documentation declined, so did the need for traditional user manuals. The demand of the day was mobility, optimum use of digital space, and accessibility. Most of these were lacking in a user manual, which now became a product best suited for a bookshelf.
With the exception of off-the-shelf products where documentation is included as part of the product suite, the audience intended to become an integral part of the content development and knowledge dissemination cycle. The advent and staggering growth of social collaborative technology has changed the world of technical communication forever.
The decline of the printed format was accompanied by the rise of online publishing, which offered accessibility, portability and stability. A popular online publishing tool, Adobe RoboHelp created an environment where writers could digitally create and maintain content. The paramount benefit for users of online publishing tools, such as Adobe RoboHelp, is on-the-job assistance. These tools guarantee retrieval of the required information at the time and point of need without having to search for it!
Single-source publishing tools were yet another invention to cater for the changing needs of the day. The ability to reuse content changed the face of technical communication. With the help of single-sourcing, an enterprise can generate different forms of documentation as suited.
Globalization also had its impact on technical communication. Translation or localization gained tremendous importance, and it is now imperative for a writer to work in an environment where information can easily be translated and localized. Single-sourcing played an important role in this regard as well.
The need for real-time communication to enrich content was one of the driving factors to initiate social collaboration. In fact the reader’s involvement in the creation and maintenance of information is one of the greatest achievements in the field of technical communication. Enabling users to provide feedback is highly beneficial in assessing the effectiveness of content.
Key trends of technical communication
Listed below are some of the significant technological trends that shaped the face of technical communication:
Dynamic content across multiple channels
YouTube has affected the user community tremendously by offering a plethora of videos that can be easily retrieved. In addition, new content for handheld devices needs to be developed that takes into consideration the users’ decreasing attention span. Complex processes can now be captured by including simulations in user guidance materials.
Content for the mobile platform
Increasing sales of eBooks that exceed those of the traditional printed form, provide an interesting indicator to a key technological trend in modern technical communication. Regular upgrades and improvements to smartphones have enabled business-critical content to be more portable than ever. The world of technical communication has adapted to this trend towards mobile content. For instance, it will be greatly beneficial for a technician, who supports different devices, networks, and other technical infrastructure, to be able to readily access a reference guide uploaded on the mobile phone. The reference guide will act as an on-the-job ready reckoner for the technician.
Personalized context-specific help
In today’s world, the content may be delivered in multiple ways, ranging from context-sensitive topics to user-personalized help. Customers are now empowered to make on-screen choices, that will present them only the relevant information. Features of authoring systems, such as structured content, topic-based authoring and conditional expressions are making this process easier.
Reporting and analytics
The trend to invest in extensive analytics has now reached the world of technical communication. Admittedly, most of the consumers of content rarely read the manuals from start to finish and instead, only scan for the relevant information they need to perform a task at hand. The RoboHelp Server addresses this need very well with page statistics on search terms, traffic patterns, and lists of frequently viewed content. These features essentially enable refining the documentation based on daily traffic and social media patterns from the customer base.
The evolution continues…
An analysis of the emerging technologies suggests that software products in the future will have well-designed and intuitive user interfaces, with a reduced need for detailed reference manuals but crisp on-screen instructions to facilitate transfer of information to the users. In addition, the demand for a more pervasive and visual communication will increase as opposed to text-intensive traditional formats of communication.
In keeping with the tradition, the content development approach continues to adapt to the changing needs of the audience. The evolution continues.
(As of September 2012)
- Corey Ganser: The Evolution of Technical Communication
- Maxwell Hoffmann: A Review of Top 10 Trends Driving the Technical Communication Industry
- Jack Molisani and Scott Abel: Reinventing our Relevance in the 2000s
- Proedit: History of Technical Writing
- Prismnet.com: The Evolution of Online Help
- Nuvvo: History of Technical Documentation
- Article Click: History of Technical Writing
- Prasanna Bidkar: History of Tech-Writing Tools
- Ironic Sans: They Don’t Make Computer Manuals Like They Used To
- Writing Assistance, Inc.: In Memory of the First Technical Writer
- Feline Musing: The Origin and Emergence of Technical Documentation
- Jeremy Norman: Coining the Terms Hypertext, Hypermedia, and Hyperlink
- Writing Assistance, Inc.: When Technical Writing became a Profession
- Mary Niva: Sarbanes-Oxley 404