While I receive many conference invitations, I was particularly intrigued when I received an invitation out-of-the-blue to present at the SIGDOC conference in Halifax. SIGDOC (which stands for “Special Interest Group on Design of Communication”) is a conference hosted by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) and is considered to be primarily focused on academic approaches and research on technical communications. I was asked to present at a few of panels; one on how to prepare future students to be leaders in technical communications, and another to talk about current progresses in content development. I jumped at the chance to attend, as it was a great opportunity for business and academia to get together in common cause. The fact that it was being held in the beautiful and historic Maritime city of Halifax also helped.

Key Speakers

The key Academia/Industry Workshop at this year’s SIGDOC conference was organized by Rebekka Andersen, an Associate Professor at UC Davis, and Carlos Evia, an Associate Professor at Virginia Tech. The latter name should be a familiar one to anybody interested in Lightweight DITA, as he is Co-chair of the OASIS Lightweight DITA Sub-committee, a group actively working on providing guidelines on how to create content using Lightweight DITA. He also has to be one of the most humorous people working on crafting the future of DITA, as he opened his talk on how online technical discourse has changed with the advent of the web, a medium used primarily to communicate about cats (and more recently, how multi-modal publishing has expanded the audience to dogs and machines).

male showing a presentation about content design at the

There was a deeply serious point to all of this of course, relating to how technical writing has evolved over the years, and how relatively recent innovations like social media, online video instruction, and structured content have changed the way technical communicators are expected to work with their target audiences.

A Brief Recap

I was part of the panel that followed the opening by Carlos and Rebekka, consisting primarily of industry experts talking about how they have seen technical communications evolve and how future students can prepare themselves for a career in the field. I was asked to follow luminary JoAnn Hackos, who talked about how the essentials of the profession have not changed: it is about communicating technical information when and where it is needed. I then argued that the only constant I have seen in my 25+ years in the business has been change. I described how the first manuals I was asked to produce (for WinFax) were printed and considered part of the product; the bulk of what stood on a shelf in a software store was the substantial manual for the product, along with the software stored on diskettes.

The advent of the web fundamentally changed the medium for technical communications, and my colleagues and I started to create content in HTML and PDF content. The other fundamental shift I have witnessed is the advent of structured content, which includes the rapid rise of DITA. I talked about how there are many business fundamentals driving the need for structured content, including the need to reduce the costs of producing content and localizing it, but also that it is the ideal method for delivering future services to users through emerging content channels like chatbots. The main point of my brief talk was that technical communication students need to be prepared for change in the way they do their work, and to embrace it.

Technical Writers Are More Often Editors of Content

Most of the presentations at the conference were from professors talking about their research in the field of technical communications. One of the more interesting presentations for me came from Claire Lauer and Eva Brumberger, both Associate Professors at Arizona State University, where they talked about their study showing how professional communicators in a Web 2.0 workplace are more editors than writers. What they discovered after observing the work done by several technical communicators was that many were less the originators of content, and more the editors of content before it went out the door. As they say in their published paper, after shadowing professional communicators in the workplace for over 100 hours, they “observed multimodal editing practices where writers would select, re-purpose, modify, and update (rather than originate) multimodal content.”

woman in black and white shirt presenting

They called this type of work “multimodal editing” as these people were working with pre-existing content sourced from various people and applications. Ultimately the work they did was on small “chunks” of content intended for use on the web, for a presentation or social media. Some of this content was designed for reuse. This quote from one of the people they shadowed rang true for me; “A lot of stuff that we do internally is filled with gobbledygook in engineering terms and [is] stuff that doesn’t really relate to the outside world, or [that] your average person might not understand. Really, a lot of what I do is taking that and translating [it] into a way that’s digestible for your regular person.” This definitely echoes what I see in the workplace, as technical writers are often there to make the content that other people create more clear and concise. It was interesting to see this verified in academic research on the topic, and suggests that the role of technical writers continues to evolve as practitioners recognize new ways to innovate while they communicate.

Technical Communication Leaders of Tomorrow

One of the most impressive things I witnessed at the conference was the “poster sessions.” In the session I attended, several young students in the field of technical communication presented a summary of their research in a single, poster-sized sheet. They stood beside their work and answered questions about their research and findings, all of which were applicable to better understanding an aspect of technical communications.

During the poster session I learned a new phrase: “Pinterest Fail.” Megan Smith, a student at Purdue University explored the usability of online recipe formats, aiming to better understand how differences in format and structure of online recipes have implications for technical documentation. While her study, called “A Pinch of Salt, A Hint of Disaster” found that there were too many variables to come to a definitive conclusion, she did say that “facilitating the usability of recipes for the end user will not only make cooking a more enjoyable experience; it also teaches people the methods of cooking the correct way.” Anyone writing tasks or troubleshooting topics in DITA shares common cause with this idea.

Women starting in front of her poster board presentation

The most impressive poster presentation I saw was from a pair of young students from MIT. Hannah Wei and Jenny Yao looked at Terms of Service (ToS) contracts for software, telling me that often young people are unaware that clicking on a button to accept its conditions is a contract that is legally-binding. In their study they tested the standard method of presenting a ToS—a long page of legal text versus a “gamified” version presenting the same information, but in a chunked manner with multiple steps. The gamified version, which held the same information as the original, proved to have higher comprehension and engagement levels in the study’s college-age participants.

two women standing in front of their poster board at a presentation

I left this session of the conference believing that the future of technical communication is in good hands.

The Role of DITA in Current Technical Communications

On the final day of the conference I gave a brief presentation on where DITA fits in with current technical communications trends and technologies. What I had learned over the previous days of the conference was that while most of the academics knew about structured authoring and DITA, few had direct experience of it and it was not a skill that was actively being taught in their classes. I looked at the rise in popularity of DITA in the almost 700 firms that are now using it, and how usage has spread significantly from its roots in the software sector.

Pie chart showing the DITA usage by industry sectors in 2017 Q2

While it is clear that not everyone is using DITA, it is obvious that it is growing. Future technologies such as chatbots are founded upon structured content associated with descriptive metadata—exactly the type of thing that DITA is suited for.

What I think really drove home the point as to future—and even current—skills that should be taught to technical communication students was Stan Doherty’s presentation, “The Graduation to Enterprise Gap” on what he is looking for when hiring new employees. In addition to being a member of the OASIS DITA Adoption Committee, he has long been a hiring manager for technical documentation teams at various companies, most recently at HPE SimpliVity. He talked about how he has been given requisitions specifically for hiring students or recent grads from technical writing programs, but that they often do not have the required skill set for him to hire them.

bald man standing in front of a presentation speak to a class

What Stan has found is that graduates often possess solid skills in areas like UXD, social media, and web design, but these are not the types of skills required in a technical communicator. The types of skills needed in the industry include the ability for contextual inquiry, interviewing skills, and working with HTML5. What he finds missing in many technical communication graduates are things like the ability to understand semantic markup, basic programming skills, modular writing skills, and an understanding of Agile methodology. Ultimately, a willingness to learn is key, and the few graduates he has hired possess this ability.

SIGDOC 2018 will be held in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, hosted by the User Experience and Communication Design program at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. The papers from this year’s conference are currently available for free (for one year) and can be found on the SIGDOC 2017 Proceedings webpage.