JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

We were pleased that 328 individuals responded to the CIDM/DCL 2016 Trends Survey. Respondents were fairly evenly divided into five categories: 57% writers, 37% managers, 38% information architects, 32% content strategists, 31% editors. Fewer represented IT support, customer services, or publishers.

As usual, the majority of the responses, fully 48% came from people representing computer software companies. The next highest group was telecommunications, with only 11%, followed by computer hardware 8%, engineering 7%, finance 5%, publishing 6%, and other 10%.

80% of respondents develop user manuals and 58% develop embedded user assistance. 33% develop knowledge base articles and another 33% develop videos. 31% develop training materials and 18% develop mobile applications. There was a long list of other types of publications including product specifications, white paper, service manuals, videos and social media posts, product data sheets, research reports, and web sites, in general.

The primary tools used by respondents were DITA at 74% and other at 75%. Unstructured Adobe FrameMaker represented 53%, Madcap Flare 66%, Adobe InDesign 43%, and Microsoft Word 38% as first choices (Figure 1). Nearly every respondent noted that they used several tools as secondary or tertiary choices. 52% used an HTML editor, the highest represented second choice. PowerPoint was also well represented as a third choice.

Figure1

Figure 1: Most frequently used editing tools

As we have seen in previous years, PDFs delivered through a corporate website continues to dominate the publishing processes with 287 of 325 (88%) respondents reporting that they continue to publish PDFs. The comments also suggest that the PDF delivery is even higher because some PDFs are delivered as part of the product or through emails, flash drive, or other means.

Interestingly, 59% still prepare some content in print, although half of these reported that less than 10% of the content was released as print. Only 8% indicated that they did not intend to publish any electronic content in 2016. 66% reported that they publish HTML content to the corporate website. Equal percentages publish embedded help.

Perhaps the most interesting result suggested that 34% of the respondents were beginning to use a dynamic content delivery system, although still with small percentages of their content.

The use of mobile applications continues to group with 41% publishing to mobile applications and the same number publishing to mobile devices in general, including ebook, Kindle, phones, and tablets.

Another 41% are publishing some content, generally less than 20%, to YouTube, to Wikis, and to learning management systems. Other methods mentioned in the comments include wikis, forums, GitHub, and as classroom materials.

As we have seen in previous surveys, however, the data continues to suggest a move away from PDF toward HTML-based delivery.  Only 76%, down from 88%, of the respondents indicated that they intended to publish their content as PDF in the next two to three years.  70%, up from 66%, expect to publish using HTML on the corporate website.

However, we again see an increasing trend toward dynamic delivery, which may be taking some of the momentum away from base HTML publishing. 45%, of respondents, up from 35% in 2015, report that they expect to move to a dynamic publishing system for an increasingly large percentage of their content. More than twice as many groups reported that they are likely to see 100% of their content in a dynamic publishing environment in the next two to three years (Figure 2).

Figure2

Figure 2: Plans for future publishing methods

All the other publishing categories—embedded help, mobile applications, mobile devices, YouTube, and Wikis—either remained the same or increased slightly.

We were interested to learn how organizations are approaching publishing to mobile devices, since we advocate designing content differently for mobile devices. Fully 38% report that their content is the same on all devices. Some publish more content on mobile devices (only 4%); more publishing less content (24%). My conclusion is that mobile devices are largely green fields, providing opportunities for better mobile design.  41% of respondents report restructuring content for mobile devices and designing content differently so that it is optimized for mobile devices. 35% reporting no differences from desktop to mobile and 25% report no differences among the various output methods.

A new question we introduced in 2016 concerned publishing content to Cloud services. Because more products are moving to the Cloud, information access might be going in the same direction. Of the 319 respondents to this question, only 11% are publishing all content to the Cloud. 20% are publishing some, and 58% are not publishing to the Cloud at all. 11% said they are not now but are planning to do so. Several mention that their products are cloud-based, and therefore their help is cloud-based by extension. Interesting to note that several people mentioned that they did not understand the question, suggesting that Cloud-based publishing is really new (Figure 3).

Figure3

Figure 3: Cloud-based publishing

Despite some interesting and positive results, information developers of all stripes appear reluctant to step into social media for content. Nearly 75% of respondents say they either do not provide content through social media or acknowledge that social media is the domain of marketing and pre-sales content. 16% use Facebook to provide content; 20% use Twitter (which is interesting), and 14% used LinkedIn. Since this question used “check all that apply,” there is some overlap. In the comments, several mentioned community-based networks as a form of social media. Also mentioned were blogs, YouTube, and Pinterest. Pinterest is a newly emerging tool for leading customers to relevant content.

Unfortunately, most of the respondents’ organizations treat content as a one-way street. We have been interested in the ability of customers to contribute content, something that Microsoft has supported for some time. But user-generated content has made only small inroads among our respondents. 58% note that customers cannot contribute content. Of the remaining, 17% allow customers to add comments to existing content and 7% do permit customers to contribute. 10% ensure that the customer-contributed content is first curated. In fact, the Curation requirement is mentioned in most of the comments. Several expect to allow customer-generated content by the end of 2016 or early 2017.

One respondent told us: “We actually provide forums and other avenues where customers can provide their own comments and content based on their experiences and environments. In fact, we encourage that kind of customer interaction and collaboration. However, we do not incorporate that content into our product libraries unless we have ‘curated’ and corroborated that content very carefully.”

We continue to see a decline in the number of professionals who believe that their content is ready for digital publishing. In 2016, 41% believe their content is ready, compared with 44% in 2015 and 48% in 2014. Unfortunately, the barriers to digital publishing remain the same. 65% report insufficient budget and 64% report insufficient staff time. The only positive change is that problems with staff time decreased significantly from 2015, declining from 76% to 64%. Budget problems increased from 56% to 65%, possibly reflecting the 2016 stock market declines and a worrisome global economy (Figure 4).

Figure4

Figure 4: Barriers to converting to more-effective digital publishing solutions

I do wish that information developers would spend more time learning what their competitors are doing with content publishing. 43% report that they don’t know about their competitors’ publication policies.  Knowing if the competitors are behind or ahead is a useful way to obtain management support for change.

The shortcomings of digital publishing have remained the same for several years:

  • Search capabilities are inadequate (63%)
  • Customers are unable to assemble topics and create their own PDFs (41%)
  • Current content does not support customer needs adequately (40%)
  • No faceted search capabilities are available (33%)
  • Too many versions of the content make finding the right information difficult (30%)

The question was so compelling, however, that 75 people wrote in comments:

  • We have a huge backlog of poor quality legacy documentation and a staffing deficit for editing and conversion.
  • Overhead of maintaining monolithic guides can’t keep pace with the agile and modular development methodologies and rapid cloud releases being put into place.
  • Currently we don’t have the expertise to even offer encrypted PDFs, which we largely leave up to our partners. If there are examples of aggregated data that can be searched and assembled, that could be helpful in making the change to XML. Right now, they’re saying PDF is fine, but I don’t think end-users know what the possibilities could be (nor do I fully appreciate them) but I think it is coming. Not just for our standards, but for our magazine too.
  • We need to deliver dynamic documentation updates, but are unable to at this time, but we are working towards a central documentation location online.
  • The delivery format is not solving the customers problems.

We want to know what respondents believe customers are asking for with content delivery. Making content more searchable and findable is at the top of the list with 65% reporting this issue. 52% want more learning videos, 44% want to access content on their mobile devices, 35% prefer embedded help and 33% would like to see topic-based content (Figure 5).  Unfortunately, too many of the comments suggest that the respondent has not been able to discover what customers actually prefer. Still, 45% of respondents believe that customers are demanding information in new ways. They are concerned that if they don’t change what they are doing, they will be left behind.

Figure5

Figure 5: Customer preferences for content delivery

More than half are looking for better tools to support their goals at the same time they search for a compelling story to gain support from senior management and funding to implement the changes they believe are important to move forward.

The 2016 survey witnessed a precipitous decline in the percentage of respondents who hope to accomplish their goals solely through in-house means (45% in 2016 versus 57% in 2016 and 52% in 2014). The same 41% as in 2015 are looking for a hybrid approach that includes their own team members and outside help.

The three greatest impediments (Figure 6) to change are

  • Lack of resources (45%)
  • Multiple groups controlling content delivery (39%)
  • Inadequate publishing tools (32%)
  • Content designed for print and PDF (31%)
  • Lack of management support (26%)

Figure6

Figure 6: Impediments to meeting customer needs

But not all is doom and gloom. From the commentary, we learned about groups that are “in good shape,” teams that are “in the middle remedying these with great solutions,” “in the process of moving to intelligent content delivery,” “converting now to DITA,” “all doors are open for the future,” and “the Power-that-Be are starting to wake up.” Amid lots of challenges and demands, many participants in the survey are working hard to respond positively for the future.