JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.
Comparing results from the first annual survey in 2013 to 2014, our biggest surprise, reflecting an emerging industry trend, was the move to HTML publishing. In 2014, 69 percent of respondents reporting publishing content in HTML and delivering the content through a corporate website. In 2013, only 19 percent of respondents reported publishing their content in HTML.
In 2013, only 23 percent of respondents predicted that they would be publishing in HTML in the next two to three years. Clearly, something has changed and changed significantly. In 2014, 80 percent of respondents predicted that they would be publishing in HTML in the next two to three years.
In 2014, 438 managers, writers, editors, publishers, and members of support functions responded to our second annual survey of Trends in the Technical Communication field, an increase of more than 100 participants from our survey in 2013. They are creating a wide variety of information types:
- User manuals (87 percent)
- Embedded user assistance (57 percent)
- Training materials (37 percent)
- Video (27 percent)
- Mobile applications (24 percent)
At the same time that HTML publishing is increasing, PDF publishing appears to be decreasing, as we have tracked as a trend for the last several years (shown in Figure 1).
Publishing PDFs to corporate websites is, as we know, the simplest way to publish content, especially when those controlling the websites do not want to develop more complex interfaces to support the content. We also are often told that customers prefer PDFs. However, given the customers rarely know what the alternatives are, this preference is hardly surprising.
Not only is PDF publishing trending downward and HTML publishing trending up, newer forms of communication with customers are trending upward dramatically with the next two to three years:
- Embedded user assistance (60 percent)
- Mobile devices (eBook, Kindle, phone, tablets) 62 percent
- Mobile applications (53 percent)
- YouTube (26 percent)
- Wikis (22 percent)
In 2013, only 7 percent planned to publish content through YouTube and only 5 percent planned to use Wikis.
The move to electronic publications remains clear with respondents explaining that they either currently publish or intend to publish 50 percent or more of their content electronically.
Despite the trend toward new methods of publishing, including mobile devices and mobile applications, individuals continue to feel that their content is not ready. In 2013, 30 percent answered “no” to our readiness question and another 24 percent didn’t know whether their content was ready or not, responses nearly identical in 2014.
The barriers to digital publishing remain significant with much the same results over the past two years (see Figure 2).
Seventy-five percent of respondents believe they have insufficient staff time to transform their content and 50 percent have insufficient budget. Another 22 percent feel they lack enough know-how to begin a project to convert their content to a digital-ready form.
One of the best methods of convincing upper management to fund a project to move to digital publishing is knowing what the competition is doing, especially if the competition is ahead of you. Responses show that 26 percent are aware that competitors are ahead but 33 percent don’t know anything about the competitors’ content delivery methods.
We were especially interested in learning more about perceived shortcomings with current methods of delivering content:
- 56 percent, down from 61 percent in 2013, said their current content does not support customers’ needs going forward
- 49 percent, up from 44 percent, said their customers want methods to assemble their own content collections from relevant topics
- 43 percent in both years said that they have so many overlapping versions of their content that customers cannot find the information they are looking for
- 30 percent, unchanged, know that customers want videos and animations but they only produce text
- 19 percent, down from 29 percent, claim they know that customers want topics but they only deliver PDFs
- 16 percent, unchanged, believe customers can find better information on the web than they provide in their content
Expanding on the analysis of types of content that customers are asking for, we learned that customers are asking for content delivered in many new ways (see Figure 3).
Customers want content on mobile devices, videos and audio, topic-based content, embedded help, and animations and 3-D graphics. Sixty percent of respondents tell us that customers are demanding information in new ways, ways in which they may be ill-equipped to produce. Yet, they still insist that all the work be done in-house with 51 percent arguing that they should be able to handle the change. However, another 46 percent want help in combination with the work of their own staff members.
What, then, makes it so difficult to develop and deliver content in new ways. The largest 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 delivery. Even more told us that they lack the time and resources to manage a conversion 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 you include simple cut and paste.
Respondents see the need for new tools, additional staff, support from technology experts, and support and funding from senior management. Without these, they feel trapped, unable to more forward yet knowing they must. It would smooth the path forward for many people and organizations if they could get help from outside experts. While it’s unlikely that all work could be outsourced, a choice of only 6 percent, a hybrid approach is likely to be most successful despite the desire to go it alone.