Sabine Ocker, Comtech Services
February 1, 2020

In 2001, Marc Prensky coined the term “digital native” to describe a generation who grew up with technologies such as computers, video games, and the internet, vs. those of us who came of age during the print era, which he described as “digital immigrants.” As digital immigrants, we’ve learned the language of technology, but people born in 1980 and later are the native speakers of that language.

In a recent CIDM Round table, we discussed digital natives and immigrants as a part of a larger topic on innovative information development trends for 2020. One insight from that meeting is most technical content creators are digital immigrants writing for other digital immigrants.

So, pragmatically speaking are we ready to bridge the divide between natives and immigrants? Can we effectively create and target content that meets the needs of users who have these characteristics?

  • Are good at multitasking and parallel processing
  • Prefer receiving information quickly from multiple sources
  • Turn to Google whenever they want to find something
  • Will access images, audio, and video before text
  • Want to interact with content in “real-time”
  • Happy with multi hyperlinked content which they can scan quickly
  • Look at user-generated content to answer their questions just as much as user guides and other documentation
  • Access content via mobile devices instead of computers

Based on input from CIDM members, I would conjecture not yet. As one CIDM member put it: “We are writing for the digital immigrants here, but we need to be able to write to digital natives. Our path which we will forge to get there is the transformation into structured authoring so that we can support emerging technologies and so that we can have mobile-ready content.”

Even for those companies that are already working in a structured markup paradigm such as DITA, there may be many reasons why we aren’t there yet, but I can think of at least two.

The first is we don’t know enough about how digital natives engage with Technical Product documentation content.

For example, we know they prefer images and videos over long-form text, but how do we apply that knowledge to our available content? How do we know which tasks we should create a video for? Who would be responsible for making and maintaining that content? Would that be a partnership between training and technical documentation, or a new kind of hybrid?

Many companies are implementing dynamic publishing platforms to offer a unified content experience to users which includes forums and other support content in addition to guides and manuals. But do those organizations have a complete picture of the “what” and the “when” for the user engagement with community content?

Having a well-defined user persona based on data will go a long way to gaining a better understanding of this ever-growing sub-set of users. Most organizations don’t demarcate the age of their users and don’t differentiate between age groups for defining goals, expectations, approaches, and pain points. Including these particulars will be mission-critical in the continued shift from immigrant to native as documentation consumers.

The second reason we aren’t there yet is limited access to direct customer feedback. If we are to better understand how requirements differ between two fundamentally different sets of users, we’ll need to have targeted surveys, interviews, focus groups, and site visits. Perhaps it is the case that these users are still too young, that they have not yet entered the workforce in enough numbers to have adequate representation in the Technical Communicator community.

If you are interested in digital natives and digital immigrants and how they interact with Technical Product documentation, I recommend reading Creating Technical Documentation for Digital Natives by Marissa Ellingson. Her recommendation summarizes that a future documentation set geared towards Digital natives must include:

  • A printed manual with an accessible, searchable, digital version
  • Instructional videos
  • A company-sponsored forum where users interact with each other and the company to resolve issues

First-hand user feedback, personas, mobile content, effective Google SEO, community and forum content, and videos will all play a role in meeting the needs of your present and future digital native users. Therefore, to successfully harness the important trend of digital transformation for 2020 and beyond, the Content Strategy in your organization will need to include all of them. Otherwise get used  to hearing the phrase, “okay boomer.”