From the Director
Changing Times—Changing Skills
The original version of this article appeared in Communication Design Quarterly. For more information, please visit their web site at http://sigdoc.acm.org/publication/.
It should be clear to anyone in technical information development that customers are changing, tools are changing, and the skill set must change as well. The results of our yearly Trends Survey clearly indicate that customers are asking for new kinds of content delivered in new ways.
Customers want content on mobile devices, videos and audio, topic-based content, embedded help, and animations and 3-D graphics. Sixty percent of respondents to the 2014 Industry Trends Survey told us that customers are demanding information in new ways, ways in which they believe they may be ill equipped to produce.
At the same time, respondents told us that they find it difficult to develop and deliver content in new ways. One impediment appears to be the distributed nature of content development. Nearly half of all respondents in 2013 and 2014 pointed to the fact that multiple groups control content development and delivery. Even more told us that they lack the time and resources to manage a change project. They note that their content is specifically designed for print or PDF, they are writing books not topics, and they have no reuse mechanisms in place unless they include simple cut and paste.
Despite these impediments, respondents saw the need for new tools, additional staff, support from technology experts, and support and funding from senior management.
Managers faced with rapidly changing demands for content are looking both for additional staff to help meet the needs and encouraging existing staff to change their traditional practices. They report being discouraged, however, by the degree of resistance they face from existing teams. They point to the need for new behaviors and hope they can find these behaviors among young new hires.
Just what skills are managers hoping for from their new hires, especially new technical-communication graduates? Here is my list, culled from hundreds of conversations and industry sources.
Ability to develop minimalist, topic-based content
Adapting to a minimalist, topic-based authoring environment is crucial for new information developers. Even tradition-bound organizations have begun to recognize that customers are not looking for books, but answers to questions, searches for information, and solutions to problems. Of course, minimalism assumes that authors know who their customers are and how they use information.
Knowledge of XML and HTML, especially the OASIS DITA standard
The OASIS DITA standard, based on XML, is progressing steadily into new areas of technology. It has gained prominence in its original space of software products. We now see increased DITA adoption in the machine industry and medical devices, as well as telecommunications and the semiconductor industry. It is also progressing out of technical publications into diverse areas of content development in the corporation. Job offerings requiring DITA knowledge and experience have also steadily increased. In addition to XML-based authoring, creating and managing HTML output and source content helps extend information development into web delivery.
Skills in new delivery methods, including video and audio, micro-training, topic-based content, animations and 3-D graphics
Customers are increasingly demanding about information delivery. They want information available in all types of media. They want to watch short videos or listen to webinar recordings. If they are working with equipment, they prefer animations and 3-D renderings that they can manipulate directly. They want short, quick learning opportunities rather than days or hours of product training. Information developers of the future need either to gain expertise in new media or be prepared to identify and work closely with qualified vendors.
Experience with social media to gain customer information and lead customers to content that answers their questions
Social media has rapidly increased in importance in communicating with customers. Most of the focus has initially been on marketing content, but the use of social media to communicate technical information is building. Microsoft introduced its Curah! website, inviting customers to contribute content. Nokia uses Twitter to communicate basic task content in response to customer inquiries. Leica answers technical questions on its Facebook page. Knowing how to monitor and effectively use social media is a crucial skill for future information developers.
Ability to gather customer feedback and understand the customer experience with content
Information developers must thoroughly understand what happens when a customer tries to find information about their products. Unfortunately, in far too many instances, information developers have never had the opportunity to observe customers in action nor have they attempted to use their own companies’ website to find content through the search process. Many fail to test their own back of the book indexes to find if they give customers the best resources. Information developers deliver PDFs without considering their accessibility.
Take, for example, my camera manual. It is delivered as a PDF that does not display the Table of Contents in a separate pane, has no links from the TOC to the chapters, and has no links from the index to the rest of the manual. Even if I check the index or the TOC, I have to scroll through the pages to find the content. I wonder if the original information developer ever tried to find answers to questions or solutions to problems in this manual.
In too many instances, maneuvering through a corporate website searching for content requires six to ten clicks, a guessing game for finding needed information. On one site I checked, after six clicks I got to a form to complete, asking for specifics about the content I was searching for. The specifics are virtually identical to the choices I had already made through the clicks.
Yet, in so many cases, no one from information development has tested the search process. One group, when asked to find a particular piece of content on their corporate website, discovered that the installation guides for the products were completely missing.
It is crucial that information developers take responsibility for the customer’s experience in finding and using content and then initiate a campaign to improve that experience, even when the details might be the responsibility of another organization.
Willingness to challenge the assumed authority of product developers and others in the organization
Managers tell me that one of the most frustrating and critical challenges in their organizations is teaching information developers “push back” behavior. Too often, the information developers are too deferential to the product developers, the service and support staff, or to anyone else who has a strong opinion about the content. Too often, information developers view their roles to be the scribes of the engineers, who decide what content to include. Instead of taking responsibility for understanding the customer experience and making the decisions about what content to provide, they become formatters and copy editors.
Perhaps managers need to look for people who both enjoy developing information and are clear and firm about their responsibility to the customer. The best way of making a case for the right content is to understand the customers and what they are asking for.
Information developers also need to spend time and effort understanding not only the customer but also the technology they are supporting. It’s discouraging to hear technical writers who make little or no effort to understand the technology.
I once argued that the most crucial course a student of information development should take at university would be calculus, not because one needs to know how to solve equations but because understanding mathematics gives one confidence about learning technology.
Understanding that content can be part of a strategic business initiative, and being able to speak the language of finance and profit
I’ve had information developers tell me that they regard their corporations’ need to earn money and make a profit as the “dirty side” of the business. They even object to keeping track of their own work so that their managers will better understand what information development actually costs and how it produces value.
Too often, senior management has regarded information development as a cost center, wasting funds that could be better allocated to product developers. But times are changing. Some of the most conservative business leaders in industries like telecommunications or semiconductors are beginning to understand that content is crucial to customer success. In fact, improving content and its delivery to customers is now part of the strategic business initiative of many companies. Senior management has learned that customers are happier and more loyal if they can find answers to their questions quickly and easily, in multiple media, and in forms that best meet their needs.
Companies that measure their Net Promoter Score, in which customers are asked if they would be willing to promote the companies’ products to others, learn that poorly designed and inaccessible content makes customers less likely to buy more products or recommend their products to colleagues.
Information developers must be able to speak the language of business if they are to be heard by senior management. They need to search for evidence that excellent content that is easy to find and use will increase profitability.
Being an agile content developer, which means speed, accuracy, and focus
One manager told us that he’s been hiring journalists to write technical content because they know how to interview a developer and write quickly and accurately. He finds them to be much more productive than his traditional technical writers. The traditional writers, he finds, are too slow, waiting for the engineers to give them text, and placing too high a value on and spending too much time on formatting.
Information developers today cannot afford to be perceived as slow or reluctant to change. They must be quick to adopt new technology, to make time to better understand customers, to know when they are producing content that no one wants, and to stop letting others tell them what to write.
I hope that new information developers coming from our university programs will be confident enough to be assertive in developing new initiatives and responding to change. Without a trend toward an innovative and confident information developer, we are likely to see a decline in the field. Managers need innovative and assertive staff members. Corporations need people who want customers to succeed and know how to make that happen. Doing the same old thing just won’t make it any longer.