Each year Adobe run a survey for Technical Writers. It asks questions about the tools, methodologies, and strategies used by those in the technical documentation industry, and tries to predict what will change in the future. They have a vested interest in the survey’s results, as they produce a number of applications used by Technical Writers. That said the results aren’t focused on their products, inside aiming to provide an honest picture of the industry. Having listened to the survey results in their recent webinar, here are my key takeaways.
It isn’t a surprise to see companies increasingly using structured authoring. It has many benefits, particularly for those with large content silos, multi-faceted output requirements, or translation needs. As such, the mean requirements for moving to a structured authoring environment were the ability to reuse content, apply consistency, and make it easy to update.
What is a surprise is the growth rate. According to this and past surveys, companies that have either adopted or were thinking or adopting structured authoring, has grown from 20% in 2012, to 50% in 2017. Predictably it is the companies with a 1000+ workforce that use structured authoring most, with over 50% of them adopting the methodology.
DITA XML remains the stand out standard used to deliver structured content, with nearly 75% of structured authoring respondents either using it or likely to use it. Custom XML solutions come second with 47%. Again no real surprise, apart from the percentage of those focused on DITA XML. It has been around since 2001, but in recent years has been widely developed and adopted since IBM handed over the management to OASIS.
PDFs are dead. Long live PDFs! Folk have been predicted the demise of PDFs to deliver content for years, but they’re still widely used. The survey shows a 90% dominance over all other output types. Responsive HTML5 comes a distant second at around 50%, although this is up significantly on recent years. That said, it looks like PDFs will be around for awhile yet. Not surprising really when you consider their advantages, and the lack of anything that even remotely matches their functionality.
One interesting side discussion around PDFs was their lack of responsiveness. As we deliver content on a variety of devices, the need to make content usable on each and every device without having to create and maintain separate source files, is of paramount importance. The rise in usage of responsive HTML5 is testimony to this. Adobe more or less dodged the discussion on whether PDFs would be made more responsive. To be fair to Adobe, there wasn’t a great rallying cry from us users to make them responsive.
Personally I think most of us don’t even try to use PDFs where there’s a responsive requirement. We prefer to use a different output type that best fits our requirements. If we want responsive output that works on a tablet or mobile, are PDFs really the best output format? They can take up considerable storage space, and aren’t as user friendly as other delivery methods.
The later part of the webinar focused on a couple of areas that raised an eyebrow:
There are a small number of survey respondents using a chatbot to deliver technical content to users. It is fair to say that such delivery methods are still in their infancy, with many differing styles being used. It is also unclear how the tools we use to deliver content fit in with this delivery methodology. If this delivery model becomes more of a requirement, perhaps our tools will have to change accordingly.
I’m less sure of the need for our tools to provide chatbot functionality. There are already a number of applications that provide this. What is needed is a way to leverage our technical content inside these applications.
Alignment of Marketing and Technical Content
With the rise of structure content usage, I can see why the synergy between marketing and technical content has increased. If you can reuse content for multiple needs from a single set of source files, that’s a big vote winner. However it requires a real sea change in a company. Most companies I’ve worked for have an ongoing battle between the Marketing and Technical Communication departments. We both see the need for content reuse, style, and consistency, but have very different ways of achieving it. Part of the reason for this has been the tools we use to create the content. However if you move to structured content, the tools become less of an issue.
Adobe have a vested interest in getting more folk in an organisation to use their software. The trouble is their user base has historically been the Technical Writer community. With the growth of content marketing, it is natural that they see this as an opportunity to expand their user base. So far, I’d say this has only had limited success, but this is a long term strategy.
The results of the 2017 survey may not have provided any real surprises, but had enough of interest to make me sit up and take notice. The few thousand respondents provided a representative sample of our community, and covered a large number of job functions and levels of seniority.