Techcomm industry trends report post image

As we close out the year, I've written up Industry Trends in Technical Communications we've seen in 2018.

I don't believe we should seek out or follow trends. Observations about trends are useful to see what other people are doing and to get a peek at what might be ahead for us. However, chasing trends can distract us, wasting time and resources.

Awareness of the what's happening in our industries can serve as the basis for beginning of research to solve a problem, shedding light about how it could apply to our unique company goals and customer needs. Trends needn't be chased because, if it turns out a particular trend applies to you, it will come your way anyway.

Awareness simply gives us advance warning of one possible future. And any advance warning is good warning, but we should always keep our customer and our business goals in mind first and foremost.

I've talked a lot about predicting the future, about techniques for keeping up. Awareness improves our ability to adapt, and so, in that spirit, here are the trends we noticed in 2018. As always, YMMV.

Real trends based on real data

Here at Single-Sourcing Solutions, we have a unique insight into trends for two reasons: our long-running TC Dojo survey and the year-over-year data from TC Camp.

What is TC Camp?

TC Camp is the unconference for technical communicators. At TC Camp, there are no juried sessions: all topics are chosen by the attendees on the day of the event. Thus, they represent the topics of highest interest to the attendees at that point in time.

Since the first event in 2013, TC Camp has had events in both Silicon Valley and in the metro D.C. area, providing us with data comparisons from different sides of the country.

TC Camp is a free day, so many people register, but approximately 50% of registrants attend the actual event. It is held on a Saturday. People who spends their free time to increase their knowledge exhibit a level of dedication to learning and keeping current. At an event like TC Camp, not only are they solving real, current problems but they're practicing collaborative learning skills as well.

The first year, we saw nearly 200 attendees. By 2018, the number of attendees has settled around 125 people, most of whom attend year after year.

Many people will come to a free day, but because TC Camp is so interactive, the event has come to attract only those attendees who are the stellar performers, the true influencers, the ones who want to grow their expertise, their skills, and their networks.

TC Campers are the people who keep up and who drive the advancement of the techcomm profession. They're the ones who experience the trends first.

What is the TC Dojo?

The TC Dojo came out of our experience with TC Camp. It was a way to provide that same community-driven discussion in a virtual setting: webinars.

Topics are chosen by the community through a survey that has been running for over 7 years.

It is a living document: Members of the TC Dojo get reminders every six months to vote in the survey and to add topics that they think need inclusion.

Over time, the list of topics contained within it has grown and shrunk (related topics are combined) and we've been able to gather statistics and see what topics rise and fall in community concern.

We can see what the community cares most about at any given time and how those interests have changed over time.

Combined, we have a unique insight into trends

We can look back on the data for 7 years of community-suggested topics of interest and concern. Add to that the customers we have, the inquiries we've fielded here at Single-Sourcing Solutions over the same time period and we have a unique insight into the profession, the professionals, and a variety of businesses and industries.

Trends in techcomm interests

We looked at the data from two perspectives: category and by individual topic/vote.

If we look at all of the topics suggested and voted on at TC Camp, we can group them into loose categories. We can also see which topics (and categories) got the most votes.

Data from TC Camp

It's important to know that the TC Camp agenda consists of only those topics that get enough votes. While many topics are nominated and voted upon, not all topics get discussed.

Some topics always get into the agenda. For example, some version of soft skills, which cover a variety of subtopics such as wrangling difficult personalities or working with SMEs, always gets into the agenda. It's not always the same skill, but that category is always present, country-wide. In the West, API docs are always on the agenda and, in fact, it usually appears more than once as focused subtopics.

Over the years, here's what we've seen as the leading topic of interest to TC Camp attendees.

Top 5, by topic and vote

  • API docs
  • Review process
  • Reuse
  • Topic-based writing
  • Soft skills

While these top five topics are consistent year over year, several topics have come in at number six: User Experience, Agile, Mobile, DITA, and Markdown.

Top 5, by category

  • Job skills
  • Soft skills
  • Topic-based writing
  • API docs
  • Process

Data from the TC Dojo

In the TC Dojo, we looked at the data by year to see which topics hold on to their position at the top of the list and the movement of these topics up and down over time.

For example, in 2015, the top three topics were Reuse, Metadata, and Audience Analysis. In 2016, it changed to Reuse, Metadata, API docs, with audience analysis moving down to #4.

In 2017, there was a good deal of fluctuation: Reuse remained at #1. #2 saw API docs and Metadata rotating for that position. #3 had the largest fluctuations: Analytics, Content Strategy, Topic-Based Writing, with Soft Skills making it's first appearance into the top 3.

In 2018, the full year shows Reuse still at #1. Soft Skills has moved up to a steady position at #2. #3 remains in flux: API docs, Metadata, and Topic-Based Writing. However, for at least one month in 2018, Soft Skills held the #1 position.

Techcomm professionals are beginning to look beyond the technical skills and tools they use and are starting to see themselves as professionals in the businesses they work for.

Other trends

It's not just skills and technology that concerns techcomm and content departments in 2018. It's the side stories that reveal business trends that have popped up this year as well. 

Techcomm folks are moving into Marcom groups and sharing their experience with reuse techniques as marketing folks run headfirst into content strategy. We've heard several techcomm professionals talk about how they've made this move in 2018.

Another place techcomm professionals have gotten new traction is within sales organizations. As sales teams learn that they can include up-sell information in documentation (showing features available if you upgrade), techcomm professionals find that reuse is up (and easier).

In addition, some sales teams have started to think about documentation as a sales tool, incorporating product information from techpubs into sales presentations and leave-behind material.

We're also starting to see some trends have regionality, reflecting the uniqueness of the businesses and industry. For example, skills in writing API docs are trending in Silicon Valley but not in Washington, D.C.

DITA in 2018

14 years after the DITA TC was first formed at OASIS, it's our opinion that DITA is solidly in the Early Majority part of the Diffusion of Innovations curve. The Early DITA Adopters are all 3-5 years in. The Innovators, 8-10.

We wrote about the DITA innovators back in 2010. At CMS/DITA NA that year, the presenters had been a mix of success and heartache. There were many stories of lessons learned. Many stories of starting over.

Five years later, the conversation at CMS/DITA NA 2015 was a lot different. There were more discussions focused on real time issues and ideas for possible solutions. Several books had been published and the more companies had more stories to tell.

More and more companies have adopted DITA since it was first released to OASIS in 2004. Efforts, needs, and experiences of Early Adopters have driven a corresponding increase in features and vendor offerings.

Today, there are a lot of mature, stable DITA implementations. Recent DITA features (like keys) have caused some retrofitting for the innovators and their usefulness far outweighs the effort to upgrade older DITA content. Other features have been hard to understand and keep up with

For us, the most interesting trend we saw in 2018 has to do with DITA moving to the Early Majority part of the curve. The steady growth speaks to the maturity of DITA skills, new tools, and the growing value of an idea.

Changing Vendors

This year, for the first time, we started hearing several stories about companies changing DITA vendors.

Because DITA isn't brand new anymore and because there are a lot more companies using DITA and talking about DITA, the information has started to permeate techcomm culture. As a result, content teams don't need a vendor to teach them DITA or hold their hands to implement it. 

Today, there are a lot of content teams who have deep DITA experiences. They know DITA; their content has been in DITA for years; and they've been publishing DITA to one or more output formats for a long time.

It's no surprise, then, that in 2018 the number of companies ditching their old DITA solution and migrating to a new one has started increasing. In fact, it's even easier this time around because this time around it's just a tool change. 

The first time a company considers the move to DITA they're learning a lot in a very short time. They're learning to rethink and rearchitect their content. They're learning DITA mechanics and mechanisms. They're learning a new tool and a new way of working.

Once you've mastered DITA and shifted to a new process, you can step back and evaluate the tool you purchased against the original ROI you projected. And if it's not living up to it's potential, or if your situation has changed, you can use your deep experience with DITA to improve your situation: You can  by moving to a tool that fits you better and matches where you are today.

And, once you're only looking at learning the idiosyncrasies of a new tool, choosing a DITA vendor becomes a lot easier. 

In addition, there are more options to get help. Best practices are starting to permeate DITA user communities. There are more books, more people with 5+ years of DITA experience available, each and every one having earned their experience in the trenches.

In 2018, we're seeing senior people addressing specific challenges and stepping into their DITA future with confidence.

Conferences, Meetups, and Professional Organizations

This year more and more people have started talking about networking. A lot of conferences have popped up, some conferences that took a hiatus are back, and Meetup has become one of the primary ways that people look for like-minded people to network with and learn from.

In 2018, we've seen conference and Meetup attendees start to fall into two categories influencers and gatherers. 

I'm not using influencer as a synonym for celebrity. I'm not talking about the people who are looking to propel their careers into fame and public attention.

Rather, these influencers are the people going to events like TC Camp and Write the Docs. These events tend to be more interactive, requiring more effort than traditional conferences and professional meetings where you go and sit and listen to a presenter.

They attract a different kind of personality. The people who attend these events are looking for more than just information. They're growing their soft skills (collaboration, problem-solving, etc.), their spheres of influence, as much as their technical skills.

For this group, it's as much about the exercise of skills as the acquisition of knowledge. These people want to be the true influencers in their organization. They want to be the people others turn to and they attend events that are structured in such a way that they can grow their influencing skills as much as any technical knowledge.

The gatherers are more inclined to attend and listen. This group knows how to go find answers. They attend a lot of events and are always absorbing information. They lurk everywhere, but their focus tends toward the absorption of knowledge and the rather than the exercise of it. 

Gatherers may also attend events like TC Camp and Write the Docs. I've noticed that WTD has moved toward including a traditional conference track in their events because there are far more gatherers than influencers.

If you're lucky, you find someone who is both. These tend to be the people who volunteer, who experiment with new ways to reach out in their communities with mixed educational-networking opportunities designed to promote other people not simply their own rising star.

Seeking second opinions

Over the last several years, we've been seeing an increase in customers coming to us for independent verification of work product and advice provided by other vendors and consultants. 

These are not "competitive quotes", but true second opinion evaluations. For us, this has been the most interesting trend we saw in 2018. And when you think about this trend in the context of all the others we've already mentioned, it's really not surprising at all.

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