Trends in Technical Communication

This product review by Phil Stokes first appeared in
CommunicatorInstitute of Scientific and Technical CommunicatorsAutumn 2011.

Trends in Technical Communication — Rethinking Help
Edited by Ellis Pratt
Available on Amazon
Rating: 7.5/10

In this collection of six short pieces and extracts, the reader is taken on a journey aimed at helping “those involved in developing software User Assistance, in all its forms, determine a strategy for the future”. To that end, six core issues facing technical communicators are presented before the book rounds off with ten predictions for the future of the industry.

The first piece, ‘Measuring the value of technical communication’, is certainly a must-read for anyone struggling to justify the value of their work in a large organisation. The chapter is full of practical advice on how to do just that. Rather than trying to develop a single line of argument which might easily fall on deaf ears or be inappropriate in some contexts, the author helpfully covers a number of different avenues with practical suggestions as to how value can be measured in terms that managers will understand. Along the way, there is an interesting argument that user documentation increases its value when economies are in recession.

In the Winter 2010 issue of Communicator, Ellis Pratt introduced us to the idea of ‘affective assistance’. If you missed that issue, you are in luck as the second offering from ‘Trends in Technical Communication’ reprints the entire article. Pratt argues that there is room for ‘the emotion factor’ in documentation — more colourful and emotive language — that can help manage the user’s experience.

If you sometimes feel that social networking seems to be taking over the world and worry about its impact for technical communicators, the next piece should reassure you. Anne Gentle, in an extract from her book ‘Conversation and Community’, argues that we should embrace the many varieties of social media rather than fear them. As Gentle points out though, harnessing the power of online communities takes both know-how and experience. This chapter covers some basic guidelines for people new to forums, blogs and SNSs (social networking sites).

In a short piece on rhetorical writing, Tony Self argues that technical communicators, like other professionals across the economic spectrum, need to be versatile. Linking with Ellis Pratt’s earlier argument about the emotion factor, Self suggests that technical communicators may need to expand their range to write persuasive documentation such as sales and marketing brochures. In a world where video tutorials and web forums are starting to replace traditional user documentation, we need to have the skills to survive.

Ellis Pratt returns for a second contribution in the lightly-titled ‘Getting readers to RTFM using techniques from Games’. If you are sceptical, don’t be: many of these techniques are already commonplace in places as diverse as Firefox updates, Dropbox and even Apple Discussion forums, where contributors are given points for ‘Helpful’ and ‘Correct’ answers. As Pratt notes, the key is to understand the rewards that drive addictive game behaviour and to find a way to exploit those in your user assistance.

The next chapter focuses on semantically structured authoring. If you haven’t really dipped into the whole XML thing yet, then here is a nice overview of what it is and why it is changing the documentation world. The book comes to a neat conclusion by offering up the editor’s predictions for the top ten ‘trends in technical communication’, aimed at anyone involved in the industry to prepare for the challenges ahead.

Despite the many difficulties facing technical communication as a profession, ultimately the book’s conclusion is optimistic. Technological innovations and the need for user assistance are not going away: it is just that help and documentation are being delivered in new ways, and professionals need to adapt themselves accordingly.

If you are looking for a general overview of the trends in the industry, then this book has definitely got something to offer. Being only in electronic format, you will need to be comfortable reading on screen and have some kind of e-reader program such as the free Kindle for Windows or Kindle for Mac, which can be downloaded from Amazon. Also, be aware that the description of the book on Amazon is somewhat misleading. This is not a 762 page mammoth of a book as stated there, but rather an e-book with 762 locations, which makes it probably somewhat less than a 100-page physical book.

As indicated in the Introduction, this is a book about strategy and general directions. As such, it tends to be light on practical techniques and at times fails to offer the kind of depth anyone already familiar with the issues might look for. I also found some of the authors harder to read than others. Some pieces lost focus at times and would have benefited from more ruthless editing.

Overall, though, this book does what it promises to do. It provides an overview of trends in technical communication and sets out a vision for the future. If you are wondering what skills you are going to need tomorrow and where the future lies for our profession, this book is a good place to start.

Ⓒ 2011 Phil Stokes

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