Three technology trends affecting technical communication

If you work in tech comm, what are the technological advances that will change your job? Noz Urbina, senior consultant with Mekon and Congility chairman, reviews three trends that are changing the face of tech comm.

At Content Agility 2013, I delivered sessions on the future of communication. They were very popular with various types of communicator, but for this post I’ve decided to take a closer look at three top trends that are changing technical communications:

  • Embedded user assistance
  • Dynamic publishing
  • Augmented reality

1. Embedded user assistance (eUA)

What is it?
Getting users to ‘read the manual’ has been a long-time challenge. eUA brings the manual content to the user by delivering help content directly inside hardware or software user interfaces, at the point and time it’s needed.

Simple examples such as automatic validity checkers, which deliver guidance on web forms in real-time, are becoming very popular, and office and personal printers have used their screens to display procedures and guidance for years.

This video demonstrates an example of the Nikon D3200s ‘Guide Mode’, which merges tutorial information and conceptual reference (at 1:15, they explain the effect of aperture) into device usage.

Why is it good?
Instead of breaking flow, a user has the content directly inline in the task at hand. The best examples move from a ‘push’ rather than ‘pull’ system, and deliver instant feedback and guidance in a way that is appropriate for the user’s skill level.

The future
I am going to be bold and say that embedded UA is sounding the death knell for traditional manuals and help, and even impacts learning and training materials. At most, it can completely avoid the need for a separate deliverable, and at minimum, it means authors must be planning their manuals as a ‘companion’ to the content that is held in the UI itself, forcing a major rethink and reorganisation to the content. eUA delivery becomes incredibly powerful when paired with dynamic publishing.

2. Dynamic publishing

What is it?
Dynamic publishing enables systems to gather content based on queries and metadata, which in turn enables the user to create content on demand. This is in contrast to traditional publishing, where an author specifies links and sequencing of pages in advance, and then publishes a static deliverable.

Why is it good?
Users can assemble the content most relevant to their interests, system, locale or level of expertise. Computers can also learn what is relevant to users and suggest content more effectively. As well, the ability to tie in real-time data from various sources means that content can be suggested to the user based on the current situation. This allows users to mix and match content or get exactly what they need with less effort. It also avoids authors needing to anticipate and specify each conceivable content flow for every potential need.

The future
Dynamic publishing projects are very popular right now, and we’ll be seeing more and more companies with public examples online in the next few years. Right now, these are often intranet or private extranet. If you’ve got examples that are public today, pop them in the comments section. I predict without a doubt that the ‘Internet of things’ will bring us more devices that explain themselves with the latest and greatest content available online.

3. Augmented reality (AR)

What is it?
The merger of computer-generated text and images with a real-world environment. Like Google Maps merges satellite, transit and traffic information into one experience, AR extends real-world senses with various types of generated input. Augmented reality is the biggest game-changer in communications since the personal computer because of how fundamentally it changes user experience and requires content rework by creators. AR has been sneaking up on us for years, and is now seeing some interesting mass-market applications both in pre and post-sales content, mainly on smartphones and tablets, and usually for the visual sense only.

The most common example is simple in-dash parking assist cameras:

augmented reality screen showing in-dash parking assist camera

Also in automotive we can see examples of more techcomm-related applications. This one, by Audi, begins to supplant the car manual by providing users with help via a mobile device for understanding more than 300 parts of the car, the interface and various procedures under the hood.

Why is it good?
Users are able to see exactly how and where procedures and parts fit together and, again, when combined with dynamic publishing they can be supported by real-time, server-side content.

The future
AR is already ‘future’ enough for the faint of heart, but there are obvious untapped applications. Truly mass-market applications like Ikea catalogues will drive down the cost of supporting tools and infrastructure, as mobile devices drove down the cost of touch-screen technology, and home gaming drove down the cost of motion control, putting them well within reach of general industry.

In coming years, AR apps could combine with two other trends – wearable technologies and gesture-control – to provide what I call ‘Your best engineers, anywhere’. Something like Google Glass combined with gesture-tracking devices like Leap Motion and the MYO armband (despite all of these of course being 1.0 versions with clear issues).

With the ability to transmit not only content, but virtual 3D representations of tools, parts, and the actual hand motions of remotely located engineers, the potential for remote collaboration is huge. It will be years, however, before we see all the trends converge and deliver viable apps.

These are my favourites, please do share yours – and example applications! – with me in the comments.

Thanks as well to my colleague Rachel Johnston, my fellow consultant at Mekon, for her help with this article.

Noz UrbinaNoz Urbina is an established content strategy thought leader, consultant and trainer specialising in cutting-edge, multi-channel, business-driven projects. Since 2000, he has provided services to Fortune 500 organisations and small-to-medium enterprises. For six years, Noz has been Events Chair and Content Director for Congility.com and has won a leading global reputation in the structured content community. Catch him on Twitter at @nozurbina, on LinkedIn or at Mekon.com / @mekonltd.