Does Tech Comm Fit into Mobile Trends?

In looking back over 2010, mobile trends dominated the marketplace. MobileFuture.org created the following video to illustrate:

Here are a few of the surprising mobile stats:

  • FIVE BILLION apps downloaded — up from 300 million in 2009
  • 347 PERCENT growth in Twitter mobile usage
  • 100 MILLION YouTube videos played on mobile devices everyday
  • 3,000 PERCENT growth in one carrier’s data traffic since 2008
  • 3,339: average number of texts sent per month by US teens.

For more, see Mobile 2010 Year in Review. (Hat tip: Future Changes.)

I admit that I’ve developed a love affair with my Palm Pre. I had the phone for six months before deciding to download paid apps. Last week I downloaded Feeder, Read it Later, Daily, Angry Birds, and Tweed. My wife bought an iPod Touch last month and also downloaded a bunch of apps too.

I actually prefer to consume content, especially RSS feeds, on my mobile device. When I’m sitting down at my computer, I’m more focused on work or writing, not reading. But the mobile experience provides all kinds of benefits for content consumption — namely, it offers content in convenient places.

In all of this mobile frenzy, tech comm must figure out where we fit into this picture. With 5 billion apps downloaded, how many users asked for help files for these apps? Is this a market we should be up to our heels in? Despite the thousands of apps, no one has yet to contact me about creating help content for a mobile device — not at work, nor on a freelance basis.

This past year I interviewed two people who see mobile as a major trend for technical communication. Both Neil Perlin and Joe Welinske are both involved in mobile markets.

I think that despite the predominance of the mobile market, most apps are too simple and straightforward to need a professional technical writer. Where technical writers might be most useful is in creating quick screencasts to both demonstrate and sell the product to users. With so many apps to choose from, users want a quick preview of the functionality to see how it will work once they purchase it. The ability to create engaging screencasts (a la Michael Pick style) might be a more relevant to move technical writers forward into the mobile market.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for a gamification company called Badgeville in the Silicon Valley area in California. I'm primarily interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication (video tutorials, illustrations), findability (organization, information architecture), content development (DITA, testing), API documentation (code examples, programming), web publishing (web platforms, Web design) -- pretty much everything related to technical writing. If you're trying to keep up to date about the field of technical communication, subscribe to my blog either by RSS or by email. To learn more about me, see my About page. You can also contact me if you have questions.

24 thoughts on “Does Tech Comm Fit into Mobile Trends?

  1. robert levy

    I think that you’re right that most apps don’t need much help. But I personally wouldn’t rely on whether someone contacts me about it.

    Why? Because some product managers don’t bother contacting a tech writer for full-featured software that certainly needs help.

    I think we should get in there to, at minimum, help establish the place where help is needed.

    Within the last year or so, I documented an iPhone app and created a short video to show some of the challenges and solutions we came up with:

    http://savethesemicolon.com/2010/06/01/help-for-iphone-app/

  2. Julio Vazquez

    I actually agree with you, Tom. Most mobile apps are designed with minimal interfaces and, because they have limited memory available, tend to eschew help for the error report and reboot the app model. The other basic issue is that mobile apps are designed based on already familiar software models (with slight modifications for the entry vehicle) so the learning curve is slight enough not to frustrate.

    Where does the professional technical communicator come in? My guess would be ensuring that content for other devices are modularized sufficiently such that mobile devices can display that content through a reading app. I envision mobile devices (and I’ve held this view for a while) as a delivery mechanism for content that a technician might use in a restricted environment (think limited room, not access) where the traditional PC or even a tablet won’t fit. If the tech needs to reference some content to insure he’s wiring something correctly has that information available without leaving the work environment.

    This requires more separation of content and ourput format. Epub is a move towards a standard that helps in that direction. The technical communicator should be more concerned with accuracy, completeness, and conciseness and let the displya handle the presentation.

    Of course, I’m nuts. :D

    1. Tom Johnson

      Julio, thanks for commenting. I agree that mobile apps can be a great vehicle for reference information. Then again, a lot of times the reference information can live on a normal website that is optimized for mobile display.

      1. Julio Vazquez

        Or, and this is the insane part of me, the device can know it’s limitations and interpret the website to optimize the display with no additional work on the site developer’s part. (Silly me, expecting automation to handle things like this.)

  3. Christine Astle

    I agree with Julio. I see a lot of potential for techpubs to use mobile devices to deliver content where a computer or paper manual may not be available or practical.

    However, I also think we shouldn’t assume that people won’t need help with mobile devices and their apps. As more and more people move to smartphones, tablets, and their apps, they’ll reach more people with differing levels of knowledge and comfort. But I say this as someone who doesn’t yet have a smartphone or a tablet or an itouch, and who needed help with itunes. Oh, I shouldn’t admit that, should I?

    1. Tom Johnson

      Good point, Christine. Even something as simple as Snagit on a Mac seemed to pose a lot of challenges for my Dad, who is 75. We do often overestimate the usability of an app from our techie points of view.

  4. Ed Martino, PhD

    Interesting post, Tom. I agree that smaller mobile devices, phones and tabs like the Samsung Galaxy are well suited to content consumption. As the apps and the UIs gain in complexity users will likely require more training, I see some opportunities for Techcomm folks to assist. However, this work will be less wordy and more graphical than traditional technical documentation.

    Note also that for gen next folks, their phones serve as their internet on-ramps in ways that older folks do not appreciate. Smart phones are bringing the internet to many in developing countries where additional opportunities for engaging learning are quite limited. For much of that market the future of eLearning and Techcomm resides in the palm of their hands.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Thanks Ed. I agree that mobile markets are increasing for developing countries, as the mobile web is their infrastructure. We have to make our content more mobile accessible.

  5. Anne Sandstrom

    The downsizing of the complex app market is potentially a good thing for users. Isn’t that what we clamor for – better usability. In doing so, we’re actually reducing opportunities for us (technical communicators) to write big, complex help systems.

    Having recognized this trend a number of years ago, I took classes in C (dating myself), JavaScript, and Java, and began taking on highly technical doc projects – SDKs and the like. I find the work interesting and challenging. Plus, I feel this expertise provides a certain level of job security.

    But I still do a fair amount of standard end user app help. I find it frustrating. Lately, my team is trying to break out of the tech writing mode – using a voice that’s more casual, reorganizing information based on what we think they’ll look for first, and even breaking grammar rules to get to the kernels of info faster. I think this will have to be true in mobile app help. Fewer, faster words. More conversational. Write in tweets.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Anne, thanks for your comment. Re the downsizing of the complex app market, I had a conversation about this yesterday with a developer. He noted trends not only in more simplified software from mobile apps, but also simplified education curricula, where the classics are skipped or skimmed, and dead languages such as Latin are dismissed because they aren’t needed.

      It made me wonder whether iPads and iPhones as the new computing model will make help obsolete in 10 years. Of course, these devices are more for content consumption than content creation, so maybe help will be more longstanding in content creation scene.

      I didn’t know you were a programmer writer. I have a lot of respect for that niche — but I’m glad I still write for the end user.

  6. Karen

    Of course techcomm fits into mobile trends. Writing help text is not the only thing a tech writer can do. Techcomm can help with the UI text, spec planning, testing, researching, and probably a lot more. With a tech writer on board, whatever text there is can have the t’s crossed and its i’s dotted. :)

    1. Tom Johnson

      Tech writers can do those things, but then they aren’t fulfilling the traditional tech writer role. They’re more like project managers, usability specialists, and human factors people.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Interesting. Maybe that’s why so many mobile apps come with a Youtube app — perhaps it optimizes the videos on mobile devices in ways that the browser doesn’t.

  7. Scott B.

    At the NN/g usability conference I attended recently, there was a course on designing mobile apps. One of their big takeaways is that mobile users NEVER READ DOCUMENTATION for their apps, and will not tolerate any amount of training in order to use an app.

    If they cannot figure out how to use it right away, they will not use it. According to their studies, even quick tips displayed while something was loading were almost entirely ignored.

    As I see it, the major opportunity for tech comm in the mobile world is using mobile devices to display documentation for external systems, not the device’s own apps. For instance:

    -Read a recipe from your iPhone while cooking
    -Glance at the instructions to replace your hard drive while working on your computer (you obviously can’t be looking at the instructions on the computer’s screen)
    -Read the instructions on how to take apart the flux capacitor while you are on the factory floor
    -Reference the steps to jumpstart your car while attempting it

    1. Tom Johnson

      Scott, thanks for your insight. I can agree with that statement about mobile users never using or wanting help. It’s always nice to know the reference, though. Did they publish their study? I often wonder whether assertions like these come from the programmer’s own resistance toward help material. But I see the point — even the presence of help means something isn’t intuitive, and when you pay 99 cents for an app, you expect it to be simple enough not to require help material.

      Good examples for the reference documentation situations.

  8. robert levy

    Scott, I can certainly say that I don’t read documentation on apps until something goes wrong. (Though, actually, that’s how I handle most software on the computer as well.)

    I can’t help but wonder if it depends on how complex they expect the app to be in the first place. With more and more computing power available to mobile devices, they’re able to handle more and more stuff.

    For example, there’s some very serious software available for the iPad, and I couldn’t imagine that people would expect to just understand it right away.

  9. Shay

    I will play a bit of the devil’s advocate here, Tom.

    As a person who had his Android device (HTC Hero for Sprint) for a year, my overall “mobile knowledge” grew to the point where I am capable (and enjoy) explaining other people how to use their smart phone more efficiently.

    While it is true that many apps are simple and are self expository, If find that with the smartphone, it’s more important to know *what* apps to download, and for what purpose. It gets a bit tinkering or even “hacking” your phone, and there is a lot of need for help in these areas.

    I am familiar with Android, so I’m going to give you a quick Contacts example (Contacts as the name of the app on the phone, that usually comes with it). I like to add places as contacts to my phone: it’s and easy way to include the name, phone number and address of a place all in one click. Later on, you can have a group of “locations” you can use to look at your favorite restaurants, including GPS navigation (from Google in my case) to get there.

    My point is that most people would not think of adding a location, a physical place, as a contact. They might not know how useful it is. It should be a technical communicator’s job to explain (via screencast even, which will be great) how to do so. No one really reads the 300 page manual for their phone, and this is where technical writers come in.

    Now, you can say “well this is great Shay, but I don’t think Google is going to call me up about a screencast for that,” and you might be right. This market is only starting, and it will a while before technical communicator become “mainstream” there too, but I believe this is a matter of a year or two, with the speed of things now days.

    For now, the much needed technical information is not sponsored by a specific organization, because at this point it’s still a bunch of techies (or geeks) like me who sit down a whole weekend to figure out how to “root” (or jailbreak) their phone. Could I use a technical communicator’s document telling me how to do so? You bet. Can I write one? Yes I can, now that I know how. But who will read it?

    There are complicated apps and many complicated things to do with smartphones, but most people don’t know about them yet, or don’t care enough for them yet. That’s what I think.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Shay, thanks for the insight here. I think you’re right — there are a ton of things I’d like to do with my phone that I don’t know how to do. I’m too lazy to even do something as simple as coordinate ringtones with contacts. I can see a market for this. In my post I was more targeting the simple apps that people download, but I should have touched upon the device itself and help for it. Thanks again for commenting and sharing your perspective.

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