Current trends in technical communications

The rise of embedded user assistance

Many technical writers are developing usability skills and leveraging them to help improve the product interface. Help is being delivered within the interface itself. Drop-down lists of topics related to an interface component, hint text below a GUI field, and other such embedded user assistance models allow users to get help without leaving the application interface.

Traditional help lives as a separate application, and requires users to learn to navigate the help interface. However, embedded help is less removed from the product and is less disruptive to the overall workflow.

Currently there are few embedded user assistance tools available, but I believe this will be a promising area of growth for tool developers in the near future, especially as APIs for linking the help to applications improve.

Developer cooperation is also a potential stumbling block since most writers have no control over the product interface. Technical communicators need to build positive relationships with developers and show them the benefits of implementing embedded help.

Increased reliance on multimedia

Users generally don't like to read help content. Reading is work, and they already have a task to complete. Instead of (or in addition to) written instructions, many technical communicators are using the "show, don't tell" approach and are providing rich multimedia demos. These demos show difficult tasks performed in the actual software product, so users can just watch and learn.

Interactive tutorials are also on the rise. Such tutorials allow users to train on basic skills before working within the actual product. These granular lessons allow users to feel more comfortable in their adjustment to the entire product workflow.

The migration to structured authoring

Many technical writers are moving to a structured authoring model. Such an approach allows writers to focus on content instead of worrying about presentation. Also, structured content can be reused in multiple documents. This is an incredible advantage for companies with large documentation sets. Structured content allows for greater consistency of both content and formatting.

The structured authoring approach requires writers to focus on granularity and modularity. Each chunk of content could be use in various contexts. Therefore, such chunks of information must be self-contained.

Semantic tagging standards, most notably DITA, are gaining traction. Many help authoring tools now offer DITA support. However, writers need to carefully consider the benefits before converting their documents to such standards. Popularity alone is not a good reason to make such an investment. If your company does not reuse content regularly, or have a great need to separate content from presentation, such a move may not be worthwhile. However, following trends does offer some guarantee that your content will be in a portable format for any future conversions. Choose carefully.

Conversing with users

Many writers are developing closer relationship with users, now that forums, wikis, and blogs are gaining traction. Such conversations require new technical writing skills. For example, writers will need to have a strong sense of company policies for disclosing information to the public, an understanding of current marketing objectives, and a sense of when to step in and provide clarification in user discussions. Also, wikis, blogs, and forums require writers to adjust to an entirely new set of tools. However, writers who make such an adjustment will gain the advantage of improved user feedback and trust.

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