Life in docs 2018 survey — Part 2: Insights

This is the second part of the results of the Life in docs 2018 survey — Part 1: Results. As I wrote previously we’ve committed to open sourcing all of our surveying and similar research. If you’re looking to understand technical writing in 2018 you’re in the right place.

In this section I’m going to sum up the survey data (which you can download the source of here) and provide some insights into the major themes it uncovered.

Please add your comments and highlights on any points that you think are interesting or require further discussion. These insights are intended as the beginning of a community conversation.

1. The technical writing team genuinely cares

A major theme in the replies is just how much people care. Not just about their workflow and their roles, but the products and the users. This empathy for the end user might surprise some of the product team.

This presents a great opportunity for technical content teams to convey not only their care for the overall product, but their additional value as a feedback loop across the product. A technical writer is in many ways an overlooked asset for UX and quality engineering.

2. Career paths feel uncertain in a time of change

Keeping with the trend of the last few years is an expressed uncertainty about the future of technical writing. In many regions the pay has plateaued. More experienced writers feel challenged by the rate of change and the convergence of other content roles (such as marketing, support, developer relations, social, etc).

This requires strong leadership to support either end of the talent pool — and a reminder that while tools and outputs might change, the vast majority of the role remains the same. Namely in guiding users to achieve their intended goals by supplying the information to do so as and when required.

Everything else around that will continue to change. Career progression will be less about certification and more about community connectivity and extended networks of support.

3. Communities of practice are the cultural engine room

The role of the community organisation has never been more important for content teams. And never more popular. In the last decade we’ve seen mailing lists give way to LinkedIn groups, and societies giving ground to communities. This movement is important to understand.

This is partly a demographic shift in both practitioners and the technical culture around them. The decline of the society format is in part due to value and agility. Membership fees and lengthy campaigning for elections provide little resolution to the problems technical writers express (as evidenced in detail in these survey results).

Communities will continue to emerge and reshape as their needs require. The complex structure of societies exhibit a fragility that leans towards a self preservation bias. Maintaining a brand may prove difficult as technical writing evolves from a singular function with specific certification and training (all revenue streams societies rely on) and into a series of complementary skills across a wide range of roles. Given their importance in political and commercial advocacy, it’s ostensibly a good thing that they encounter these force functions for change — but it would be a shame to lose them entirely.

4. Collaboration is gaining momentum across the organisation

In nearly every question there is a theme of collaboration in reply. Whether that’s across the organisation, with users, or in the workflow and toolchain.

On the one hand this might feel like an overloaded term. But on the other hand this is genuinely a quantum shift across the entire software and content industry. Market dynamics require more nimble updates at a higher frequency, with teams both closer to each other and the customer than ever before.

And it seems the content teams are ready for the challenge. Writers are increasingly excited about customer engagement (and creating content for the devices or channels they prefer). The monolithic narrative book era as default is done. As too is the long cultural tail of bike shedding that trailed it (such as internal debates about style guides versus talking to users or evaluating the impact of the content created).

At the other end of the scale content teams are frustrated that agile methodologies and a focus on developer culture puts their contribution both last and rushed. The opportunities to loop content teams in with product, quality engineer, UX and support will likely need to be created themselves. Only so much community advocacy can fill in where bold internal leaders are required.

5. Design continues to increase in importance

Technical writers are talking about UX now more than ever. And for good reason. It has been a decade since the iPhone changed everything with a sudden constant access to information and an incredibly high quality consumer experience putting pressure on enterprises to keep up.

And yet… PDFs 😱

I might have been a few years early in my prediction of UX as a priority in technical communication but we can see the impact of a modern focus on usable workflows over the legacy of features. As evidenced in Atlassian’s acquisition of Trello despite the feature-rich offering of its own JIRA. This trend will continue to affect product design (and the relationship between startups and enterprise acquisitions).

6. Mixed content types and delivery channels on the rise

User demand for technical content changes for the simple reason that the user’s world changes. A typical customer carries the benchmark for content and digital experiences in their hand/pocket/purse every day — the mobile device.

As the birth of the internet changed the delivery of hard-copy books, so does the evolution of mobile computing. If this doesn’t impact your core content directly, it does so by context. A historic trend that shows no reason to stop. Especially if understood as a natural and logical increase in the resolution of the format, the medium, and the timescale of access to knowledge.

This causes tension where the rate of change challenges the technical writing culture (and practitioner’s sense of self) and the organisation (unlikely to wish to increase expenditure for a role it often sees as administrative). This ties into the necessity for content teams to understand their position in the wider marketing, sales and support position. And to invest in their capability to experiment and lead on behalf of the user.

7. Video is your second biggest search engine

One area in particular to watch is video. Only the most sandboxed team would put their personal feelings about creating (or consuming) video ahead of the reality of users opting for content to literally show them how to operate.

The boom in video content consumption puts understandable pressure on the content team — from methodology to content workflows to collaboration across design and technical teams. Let alone budget. Who pays for this stuff now?

That’s a question that will need to be solved. YouTube isn’t just the second biggest search engine, but the staging ground for community advocates. 2018 is the year where a community-generated video tutorial for a DJI Mavic Air drone generates over 600,000 views. While the official DJI videos generate barely 120,000 for their over-produced and awkwardly scripted official content.

If video platforms are not your realm for content (yet), they might just be a great location to interact with the more engaged community content makers.

8. Toolchains matter more than we would like

A common anecdotal criticism is that there’s too much focus on tools rather than processes. But toolchains are always a major issue in survey results, and here we see no different.

This is of no surprise given the cognitive load of the objects and processes we interact with determining how worn down we are in our daily tasks. Something that can be overlooked when content teams are siloed — a breeding ground for “it was hard for me too and I managed to work it out” defensive elitism.

A risk in the technical publishing industry is that the majority of the dominant products are no longer under active development. Adobe’s financial reports classify its technical publishing tools as legacy, and the results are evident in both the appearance and use. XML tools are persistent despite the decline of the format (and often struggle to attract venture funding).

This leaves the paradox of inverted ability to resource — namely where the startups and open source teams able to produce major iterations and innovations are under-resourced, and the resource-heavy enterprise teams are unable to overcome glacial internal processes to ship anything truly innovative. In the meantime bundled products (Confluence in the Atlassian world) and previous generation contenders (MadCap) move to take up the market share while heavy investment into products like Dropbox Paper have as yet been awkwardly missing in action.

9. Morale is (surprisingly) high

The most surprising element of the entire survey is that the morale for technical writing is high. In the past I’ve run sentiment analysis tools over mailing lists and community archives to explore just how happy (or notably disgruntled) the industry may be. The results are quite often… far from rainbows and unicorns.

The survey replies are by no means exhaustive, but spread across a number of community sources (mailing lists, LinkedIn groups, Slack and so on) does represent a relative diversity. And here they are during a time of incredible change with an incredible attitude that it’s also a time of opportunity.

10. What do you think?

The final point is one I’d rather hear from you. What do you think about technical writing in 2018? What will the content industry look like in years to come? What do you think is changing for better or worse?

Let me know in comments on Twitter or email me directly at david at corilla dot com. And stay tuned for the next surveys where we will dive deeper into tooling, training, and career progression.

Thank you!

This survey and analysis is made possible by the team in and around Corilla. Particularly Ton for his wonderful title graphics, Bob for the support as we navigate our way to open source all the things, and everyone who clicked their way through the survey.

Now it’s over to you to share these results, hit that clap button to show your support, and go grab the source data if you want it.

My name is David Ryan, the creator of Corilla, a collaborative documentation tool for software teams. All about PM and UX and content team collaboration. Formerly Red Hat and the NUMA Paris startup accelerator. How can I help?