Dawn Stevens, Comtech Services, Inc.
In February 2017, Comtech and DCL conducted the fifth annual publishing trends survey, which examines the content types, development tools, output formats, and delivery mechanisms in use today to see how the industry is changing and to anticipate additional changes over the next few years. This article summarizes the 2017 survey results, and looks at how responses have changed over the years the survey has been conducted.
In the five years of the survey, almost 1900 people have responded, with an average of 375 people per year. These people come primarily from what could be considered the traditional roles of information development, including
- Writers (53 percent)
- Managers (38 percent)
- Information architects (35 percent)
- Content strategists (27 percent)
- Editors (23 percent)
- Publishers (13 percent)
Overall, the reported role percentages total more 200 percent, leading to the conclusion that most people hold at least two roles within their organization. Trends data is somewhat skewed to the practices of “technological” companies, specifically software companies. Almost 60 percent of respondents indicated they worked for a “technological” company, largely those related to software, hardware, semiconductor, and telecommunications, with more than 44 percent specifically indicating a software company. A much smaller secondary market identified itself as Industrial, such as automotive, aerospace, and manufacturing.
Types of Content
The types of content being created has been relatively unchanged over the last five years. The larger percentages seem to represent the core of technical communication’s existence—user manuals, release notes, and help systems—and the percentage of individuals creating these types of content have consistently fallen within a few percentage points of that shown on this year’s graph (Figure 1).
Figure 1: Types of Content
In 2016, knowledge base articles was added as an option, and it also has remained consistent in its two years on the survey. This year, social media content and marketing materials have been added due to increasing reports of information development teams doing this type of work. The survey shows these types of content are less common, perhaps because they are relatively new areas to the traditional technical writing teams. It will be interesting to see if these areas grow over the next several years.
To create content, the majority of people indicated they are using XML authoring tools and/or Microsoft Word (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Development Tools
The percentages shown in Figure 2 represent a composite score of any tools that might be in use, without any indication of whether the tool is the primary development tool, a secondary tool, or even a tool used only to maintain a small amount of legacy content.
Separating out the Primary tool use gives a clearer picture of the trend in this area (Figure 3). Thirty-eight percent indicate they are primarily using XML authoring tools, such as oXygen, XmetaL, and Arbortext. Although participants haven’t completely abandoned other tools, it is three times more likely that they are using an XML authoring tool over any other tool.
Figure 3: Primary Tool Use
In addition, the data shows that users who are using an XML editor are almost certainly using it as their primary tool (Figure 4); the same is true for Madcap Flare. However, all other tools in the survey, including Microsoft Word, are more likely to be used as a secondary tool, and in some cases, such as Markdown, as a tertiary tool.
Figure 4: Use of Specific Tools as Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary
With 67 percent of respondents using XML authoring tools in some capacity, teams are likely handling many more files than they used to and it is no surprise that a majority of people are therefore using a CCMS or CMS systems (Figure 5). However, it is somewhat surprising to find that the percentage of people using a CCMS is only about half that using an XML authoring tool. A question that might be useful to add in the future is a measure of the number of topics being managed. Most experts will recommend a CCMS when managing tens of thousands of topics simply to handle things like link management. The survey currently has no measure to determine if people are managing this volume outside of a CCMS or if the majority of people are dealing with a smaller set of topics.
Figure 5: Content Management Approach
Although it is not surprising that the core types of content being developed remains unchanged, certainly respondents over the years have anticipated changes in the formats in which that content is published. Figure 6 compares the expectations for the early years of the survey. Respondents have consistently expected print formats to lower over time, while anticipating an increase in more “modern” approaches such as video, mobile apps, ebooks, and social media. In fact, in 2013 and 2014, respondents actually expected print to fall below mobile apps and ebook formats.
Figure 6: Expected Content Formats
It is also interesting to look at the tremendous expectations for growth in both video and social content. Year after year, respondents have consistently anticipated a dramatic increase in these content formats when asked what formats they anticipated to be using in three years. However, looking at the actual reported formats for 2017, four years after these 3-year predictions, actuals are nowhere near the expectations (Figure 7). Video and social media are meeting 2013 expectations, while mobile apps and ebooks are not anywhere close to expectations.
Figure 7: Current Publishing Formats
On the other hand, predictions about the more mainstream formats have been fairly accurate, with print perhaps decreasing at an even faster level than anticipated three or four years ago.
Predictions this year (for the year 2020) seem to have normalized somewhat as respondents recognized that some formats, such as ebooks and mobile apps, did not take off as originally expected (Figure 8). Although growth is still expected in these formats, expectations are being reined in. Respondents continue to predict a steady decline for printed content, but for the first time, they are also starting to predict a more dramatic demise of PDF.
Figure 8: 2020 Predictions
Interestingly, predictions for only a year out are much more conservative. When asked what percentage of content would be published in an electronic format by the end of this year, only a scant majority of respondents indicated that more than 50 percent of their content would be published electronically, with almost a third indicating less than 25 percent would be in electronic form. It is also interesting that these results have not changed significantly over the last three years. Ultimately, although most people deliver in an electronic format, as shown in Figure 8, it is not their only output nor is it expected to be so in the near future.
Because mobile apps are expected to triple over the next three years, the survey asked respondents about their overall mobile strategies (Figure 9). Currently, 45 percent are not publishing on mobile devices at all. If a company is publishing to mobile, however, it is very likely they are using a responsive web site, with 43 percent reporting the use of responsive design and only 5 percent indicating they design mobile-specific solutions. Most likely as a result of a responsive design approach, 65 percent of respondents with a mobile strategy indicate that they publish the same information regardless of the type of device. A smaller proportion, but still significant, are in some way reducing the content available on mobile devices.
Figure 9: Mobile Strategies
Social Media Strategy
Similar to the mobile expectations, participants expect the use of social media to grow, so the survey also examined current strategies in this area. LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook all seem equally likely to be used within an organization. The survey did not reveal an overwhelming favorite, but did give a slight edge to LinkedIn and YouTube likely due to the more professional aura given to LinkedIn and the use of YouTube for video distribution.
Currently it appears that social media is largely being used for marketing and presales activities or to direct users to specific content (Figure 10). However, some organizations are beginning to use social tools as a way to reach out to users, providing a way for users to offer feedback and to gather information about the community.
Figure 10: Social Media Strategies
Although users might be able to provide feedback on content through social media, generally they are not allowed to add their own content to the mix (Figure 11). Companies that do allow it, greatly restrict what can be done. Although the survey didn’t specifically ask, these restrictions are likely to be due to issues of control and legal concerns. These issues must be addressed moving forward to make full use of the power of social media.
Figure 11: User-generated Content
Obviously, many of the expected changes in publishing formats are being driven by the user community. In particular, respondents indicated that the following customer demands are driving their changes in publishing formats:
- Content that is more searchable, possibly using faceted search (63 percent)
- Customized or personalized content (50 percent)
- Videos (45 percent)
- PDFs (43 percent)
- Content available on mobile devices (39 percent)
- Embedded help (36 percent)
- Topic-based content (31 percent)
- Interactive media (21 percent)
- Opportunities to generate content themselves (18 percent)
- Animations and 3D graphics (16 percent)
- eLearning (15 percent)
- eBooks (6 percent)
- Augmented reality (6 percent)
It shouldn’t be surprising that users want to find relevant information for their situation immediately. These demands are reflected in many of the responses here—content that is more searchable, personalized, and topic-based. In addition, there are increasing demands for non-text-based content, including videos, interactive media, animations, 3d graphics, elearning, and augmented reality.
An interesting conundrum, however, is that customers want content on the go, viewable on their mobile devices (39 percent), while still demanding PDF (43 percent). These two requests seem in direct conflict with each other and probably warrant a closer look. What is the real need behind a request for PDF format, and is there a solution other than PDF to meet that need?
Another driving force in publishing expectations is of course the demands of the business. First and foremost, companies want their information development teams to pay attention to customer demands and to keep up with industry trends. However they also seem to be willing to fund these initiatives, instead asking those teams to do more with less (Figure 12). And these things may not go well together.
Figure 12: Business Demands
Future Content Strategies
Although it is not the number one customer concern, nor does it factor into the cited business requirements, improving mobile device support features is the future strategy plan of over 60 percent of respondents (Figure 13). The next several strategies (dynamic delivery, topic-based content, and user-generated content), however, are all directly related to the user demand for content geared specifically to their needs.
Figure 13: Future Content Strategies
Interestingly, strategies appear to be more focussed on adding features and functionality, rather than eliminating work such as PDFs and printing. These strategies might be best reconsidered in light of later survey results that indicate the primary barriers to making changes are time and money. Perhaps funding could be repurposed out of budgets currently allocated to PDFs and printing.
Future Delivery Mechanisms
As discussed earlier, predictions for 2020 show a continuing decline for printed hard copy and the start of a decline in PDF output (Figure 14). Mobile and social are expected to grow, but at perhaps a slower pace that predicted in years past.
Figure 14: Future Delivery Mechanisms
Are You Ready?
The most significant change from past data came in answer to the question “Is your content ready to support your future plans?” and this change was not an improvement. Although the number of Don’t Know’s has gone down as more people complete their readiness evaluations, the number of No’s have increased more than the decrease in Don’t Know’s. This result means that people in the past who reported they were ready are changing their mind. Perhaps they have learned more about the issues they may face, perhaps they have had a failed attempt at making a change. For some reason, the majority now believe they are not ready, in contrast with a steady 30 percent answering No in the past (Figure 15).
Figure 15: Are You Ready?
The reasons people report they aren’t ready largely center around the amount of content they currently produce, its structure, its effectivity, its format, and its findability:
- Our search capability needs improvement (66 percent)
- We have so much content that customers cannot find the correct information to help them be successful (53 percent)
- Our current content does not fully support customers’ needs (44 percent)
- Customers are unable to assemble topics and produce their own PDFs (37 percent)
- Our current content is not well structured (35 percent)
- We only develop text and our customers are asking for videos and/or animations (19 percent)
- We only deliver PDFs and our customers want different formats (17 percent)
- Customers find better information on the web than we provide in our content (8 percent)
Companies are finding they produce too much content and as a result, needed information is difficult to find, and in some cases they question whether their content even supports user needs. Largely, there is a need to overhaul content strategy and structure.
Unfortunately, however, there are significant barriers to fixing the shortcomings and preparing for the future. It is an age-old battle of not having enough resources to do something different. Insufficient time and budget top the list of barriers (Figure 16). Many of the barriers lower on the list, such as unawareness of user demands, lack of knowledge, inadequate tools are certainly more addressable when the first two are not in the way.
Figure 16: Top Barriers
For people who have gotten past their initial barriers and are working on their conversions to new publishing formats and delivery mechanisms, conversion strategies vary (Figure 17).
Figure 17: Conversion Strategies
The majority of participants are working to do their conversions on their own, supplemented by training. Largely this seems to be driven by a need to rewrite much of the content for the new strategies. As a result, there is much less automated conversion able to be done, and content conversion cannot be easily outsourced because of the rewrite requirement.
When converting content, challenges are similar to the initial barriers for adopting a new content strategy (Figure 18). Time and money are still significant factors, although content structure is seen as the biggest challenge. Better structure could potentially reduce the required time and budget. This observation implies that even as companies begin making their initial justifications for new formats, changing the way they write now, even in an old system, could have positive impact once they get the go ahead.
Figure 18: Conversion Challenges
It seems that the old adage that “the more things change, the more things stay the same” holds true. This year’s trend survey indicates a continuing desire and expectation to move to more modern, interesting, and dynamic content strategies competing with the age-old fight for resources to do it all. Not surprisingly, respondents indicate their primary needs in moving to new strategies are time and money (Figure 19). However, to get these resources, they also recognize the need for a compelling story, supporting analytics, and getting buy-in from staff and management.
Figure 19: Top Needs
There is a big need for success stories, ROIs, and other data from leaders in the community to help the rest justify taking similar steps. If you have such a success story, consider presenting it at a conference or in a webinar, or publishing a paper in a journal or newsletter similar to this one. Your peers will thank you.