2018 Publishing Trends
Earlier this year, Comtech and DCL conducted the sixth 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 2018 survey results and looks at how responses have changed over the years the survey has been conducted.
In the six years of the survey, almost 2200 people have responded, with an average of 349 people per year. These people come primarily from what could be considered the traditional roles of information development, including
- Information architects
- Content strategists
Although the percentages remain relatively static year over year, we have seen an increase in the number of self-reporting information architects and content strategists, while writers and editors correspondingly decrease. This trend may simply reflect that job titles in the industry remain in flux, with the title of technical writer giving way to titles that more accurately reflect expanding roles. However, the roles reported continue to exceed the number of surveys completed, indicating that most people wear multiple hats, filling at least two, if not more, roles in their organization.
A majority of participants report that they work for a “technology” company, including the software, hardware, semiconductor, and telecommunications industries. However, in 2018, the gap significantly narrowed between “technology” and “industry” (which includes areas such as automotive, aerospace, and manufacturing), giving us a more balanced view of publishing trends across all industries.
Types of Content
As expected, the types of content being created remain consistent year over year, with the larger percentages representing the core of technical communication’s existence—user manuals, release notes, and help systems (Figure 1).
These percentages have not changed since we started the survey.
However, we continue to add more types of content to the selection list based on the write-in content types from previous years. This year, we added API documentation, UI/UX strings, and video. In its first year, API documentation took the 4th spot, perhaps indicating that it has been missing from the survey for a while. Surprisingly, based on other data in the survey, video took the 5th spot with almost 38% of respondents indicating they are involved in creating video content.
The biggest surprise, however, was the 29% of participants indicating that they are in charge of UI/UX strings, corroborating the stories we have heard about the growing trend to put technical communicators in charge of any user-facing text, regardless of where that text occurs. On the other hand, marketing materials and social media content, added in 2017, remain static. It’s possible this initial showing for UI/UX strings reflects the continued adoption of Agile methodologies which embed writers with the development teams, perhaps affording them more opportunities to be involved directly in creating the user interface, while the more traditional marketing pieces, including social media, still remain more isolated in the marketing department.
As has been the trend for the last few years, the majority of people indicate they are using XML authoring tools and/or Microsoft Word (Figure 2) to create content. In fact, distribution in this area remains quite static, with all choices fluctuating by no more than 4%. However, it is worth noting that one of the 3% changes is the increase in the use of Markdown (from 9% to 12%). This increase matches a corresponding increase in people talking about Markdown and other lightweight mark-up languages at industry conferences and in social media channels.
Note that the percentages in Figure 2 simply indicate that the tool is used in some way within the department, not necessarily as the primary development tool. When asked about the primary development tool, participants indicate than an XML authoring tool is three times more likely to be used than the second most popular tool, MS Word (Figure 3). In fact, teams who report the use of an XML author in any capacity are almost certainly using it as their primary tool (Figure 4).
Figure 3: Primary Tool Use
Figure 4: Use of Specific Tools as Primary, Secondary, or Tertiary
In contrast, tools such as MS Word, are equally likely to be used as the primary, secondary, or even tertiary tool. The increase in the number of teams reporting the use of Markdown also impacted this question, with a significant increase in the likelihood that teams using Markdown are using it as their primary tool. In 2017, only 28% of teams using Markdown used it as their primary tool; this year that number has jumped to almost 42%.
As teams produce more and more content, there is a corresponding need for a good content management solution. Based on input from the 2017 survey, this year we let participants select all content management strategies they employed, rather than forcing a single selection. The results show a mixed approach to file management, with many people selecting at least two approaches (Figure 5). It appears from this data that not all content is kept in a single location; for example, some companies may store their DITA content in a component content management system (CCMS), but maintain other files, such as images, on a file server or in a source control system.
Although we continue to produce the same core types of content year after year (Figure 6), respondents continue to anticipate changes in the formats in which that content is delivered. However, anticipation has overshot reality, and we are seeing a tempering in our expectations in some areas. For example, participants in 2014 expected that print formats would reduce to about a third of our content, but as print stubbornly remains a factor in many organizations, later predictions keep print at greater than 50% of our content.
Figure 6: Past Predictions
Similarly, predictions for less traditional outputs are also tempered. While predictions are up, they are not as high as the peaks prediction three years ago and despite our tempered expectations, actuals (Figure 7) are still significantly below predictions. For example, three years ago, participants predicted video would represent about 45% of our content, while actuals reported this year, show video at less than a third of that prediction. We see similar results in the areas of dynamic delivery, mobile apps, wiki, and LMS content.
On the other hand, print has decreased almost to our expectations from three years ago, and HTML and electronic PDF are very close to meeting or exceeding expectations.
With the reality of today’s formats, predictions for the year 2021 continue to back off earlier year predictions, with the exception of dynamic publishing, where participants still expect to see a dramatic increase over the next three years. In fact, even though predictions are not as high as in years past, we will still need to see some significant movement in the areas of video and mobile apps to meet the 2021 predictions (Figure 8). To balance that growth, participants predict that print and electronic PDFs will decrease.
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 61% of respondents indicated that more than 50 percent of their content would be published electronically, with a quarter indicating less than 25 percent would be in electronic form. These answers leave us wondering how these other formats will meet their three-year predications if more significant movement is not expected in the next 12 months.
With mobile apps still expected to double over the next few years, it is surprising that the majority of participants (54%) do not have a strategy or are not publishing on mobile devices. Further, a significant majority of teams that are publishing content to the web are simply publishing the same content in all formats rather than designing specifically for mobile. Reading and comprehension data shows that people interact with content differently on mobile devices, which calls into question a one-for-all strategy. About half of the companies publishing the same content do have a responsive design approach to optimize the content for mobile, with only four percent indicating they design mobile-specific designs (see Figure 9).
Figure 9: Mobile Strategies
Social Media Strategy
Predictions for Social Media usage have decreased dramatically in the last three years, with the 2020 predictions seeming to now indicate that social media is a non-factor and will stagnate at current levels. However, it did see small growth over 2017, with 60% rather than 55% of respondents indicating they used social media in some fashion (Figure 10). The growth largely occurred in the use of social media to direct users to content and marketing activities, with other options actually decreasing somewhat.
Another decrease from 2017 is in the number of companies who allow customers to contribute content. Only 33% of respondents (compared to 38% last year) have some form of customer contribution and those contributions are severely limited (Figure 11). However, as the next session discusses, only 19% of participants indicate that users are asking for such a capability and therefore the functionality is not a priority.
Although users may not want to contribute their own content, they do want a more tailored content experience. As in 2017, the top three user demands reported by participants are customized or personalized content, videos, and better searches. In fact, the entire list of priorities is virtually identical to last year, with the only significant difference being animations and 3D graphics swapping places with interactive media:
- Content that is more searchable, possibly using faceted search (58 percent)
- Videos (49 percent)
- Customized or personalized content (43 percent)
- PDFs (35 percent)
- Content available on mobile devices (34 percent)
- Embedded help (28 percent)
- Topic-based content (26 percent)
- Animations and 3D graphics (21 percent)
- Opportunities to generate content themselves (19 percent)
- Interactive media (18 percent)
eLearning (13 percent)
- Augmented reality (7 percent)
- eBooks (5 percent)
The actual percentages had minor changes, with the most interesting being a drop from 43% to 35% on the demand for PDF. Certainly, this is a trend that many technical communicators hope continues as customers embrace a topic-driven, rather than book-driven, approach; however, the demand for topic-based content had a similar drop from 31% to 26%. Potentially, the drop could simply reflect that customers no longer need to ask for such a structure as it is part of their support package. We’ll need to further monitor these numbers to see if the trend continues.
Customer demands remain in the forefront of business concerns, with 55% of participants indicating it is the primary driving force for change in their businesses (Figure 12). It is closely followed not only by the need to keep up with information development trends, but unfortunately also with a demand that documentation departments do more with less. Departments are being challenged to make changes in documentation approach to better satisfy customers, but are not being given the resources to meet that goal.
Future Content Strategies
Despite factors that indicate that teams would do best by improving the findability of their content, the number one improvement initiative remains focussed on improving support for mobile strategies (Figure 13). Because most users use their mobile phones for internet searches, perhaps these two items go hand-in-hand, and certainly the second strategy of providing dynamic delivery options directly addresses the user demands for customized or personalized content. Nevertheless, other initiatives such as involving users in content creation, increasing a social media presence, and eliminating PDFs do not seem to point to a user-centered strategy for improvements, as none of these issues are high on the list of user demands.
In fact, the third content strategy has little to do with a customer-focus at all, and instead focusses on the authoring environment, an option that moved up from fifth place last year. Of course, such a change may be necessary to meet the actual demands of the users.
Future Delivery Mechanisms
As discussed earlier, predictions for 2021 are more conservative than in the past in newer, non-traditional content. In effect, participants largely expect that we will continue to produce what we do today with a similar emphasis (Figure 14). Predictions show a continuing expected decline for both printed hard copy and PDF outputs, but PDFs remain an expected delivery by the majority.
Although all other areas are expected to grow somewhat as the emphasis on PDF declines, only dynamic delivery capabilities seem to now show the most potential for adoption, over video and mobile applications.
Are You Ready?
Unfortunately, almost half of all participants do not believe they are prepared to address the future demands for content (Figure 15), with only 35% believing their content is ready.
The reasons cited for this disturbing trend center around the amount of content being produced, its structure, its effectivity, its format, and its findability:
- Our search capability needs improvement (65 percent)
- We have so much content that customers cannot find the correct information to help them be successful (49 percent)
- Our current content does not fully support customers’ needs (48 percent)
- Customers are unable to assemble topics and produce their own PDFs (38 percent)
- Our current content is not well structured (33 percent)
- We only deliver PDFs and our customers want different formats (20 percent)
- We only develop text and our customers are asking for videos and/or animations (16 percent)
- Customers find better information on the web than we provide in our content (9 percent)
In short, it seems that a large number of documentation teams lack an appropriate adaptable content strategy. At the same time, unfortunately, these issues cannot be addressed due to a lack of time and budget, which remain the top barriers year after year (Figure 16). This year, however, participants seemed more focussed on tool issues, with concern about tools moving from 5th to 3rd, from 37% to 49% reporting tools to be problematic.
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). Although the majority are converting their content in-house, rewriting as necessary, 25% of participants indicate a willingness to outsource at least a portion of this work (up from 18% in 2017); this increase may reflect a somewhat stronger economy with groups having a larger outsourcing budget than in years past.
Conversion efforts are hampered by the same types of barriers to adopting a new strategy: staff availability and money. In fact, insufficient staff took over the top spot in 2017, surpassing the concern that content is not well-structured enough for easy conversion (Figure 18). In addition, we see continued growth (from 27 to 37 percent) in the number of people admitting that they lack the necessary knowledge to perform conversion, providing a significant barrier to preparing for the future predicted changes.
To be prepared for the future, first and foremost, participants consistently cite a need for more time, resources, budget, and training (Figure 19). To gain these resources, they need a compelling story, supporting analytics, and buy-in from staff and management, and in a similar trend as earlier, more people are looking to outside expertise to select the right tool and guide them through the overall process (an increase from 36% to 46%). Often, however, the best resources are those who have already gone through the process and have a great success story. If you are one of those people, submit your story to CIDM for sharing with the community. Help your peers and the industry as a whole meet the demands of our users and prepare for the future.